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Returning to the office after Labor Day? Maybe not.

The recent COVID-19 surge is pushing some Tampa Bay companies to reevaluate plans for in-person work.
Steven Zanetos, account executive, talks on the phone inside a soundproof pod during a hybrid schedule at Workscapes office in downtown Tampa.
Steven Zanetos, account executive, talks on the phone inside a soundproof pod during a hybrid schedule at Workscapes office in downtown Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Aug. 11, 2021|Updated Aug. 17, 2021

Tampa Bay cubicles and conference rooms may sit empty awhile longer, as some companies push their September return-to-office dates back once more.

The recent COVID-19 surge in Florida has employers opting to keep white-collar workers home until 2022 — a move that large corporations like Amazon and Wells Fargo announced last week. Others are doubling down on hybrid schedules or abandoning tentative return dates altogether.

“There’s too much uncertainty,” said Erika Lance from KnowBe4, a security software company based in Clearwater. “We thought we’d have an October opening before, and that was just a guess.”

Rising COVID-19 numbers have forced companies to extend office timelines before — from last fall to New Year’s, then to Labor Day 2021. Each time, the prospect of face-to-face work was delayed by recurring waves of the virus.

The delta variant introduces a new set of worries, said Kate List, the president of Global Workplace Analytics, an employer research and consulting firm.

The state has reported an average of 19,000 cases daily — including some among vaccinated adults. Preliminary research shows newer variants may be more transmissible than earlier strains. And virus-related hospitalizations have increased sharply, including in children.

Home offices and Zoom meetings feel safer, List said.

“It’s not just fear of the office,” she said. “It’s fear of getting there, riding the elevator. It’s fear of whether the employer is doing the right thing in terms of cleaning.”

She helps seven companies — each with more than 3,000 employees — organize their workplace. Three operate in Florida, and all delayed in-person work until at least December.

The decision has been well-received by employees, List added. Only 5 to 15 percent want to be back in the office full time, according to research from Global Workplace Analytics. The rest prefer to work from home or partly in-person.

Lance, the chief human resources officer at KnowBe4, said the Clearwater office will likely never revert to full capacity. Today, less than 10 percent of KnowBe4 staffers voluntarily use the building, which operates with mask and social distancing requirements.

On an undecided date, its 1000 employees may eventually work on rotating hybrid schedules. That could help KnowBe4 retain talent and offer flexibility to new hires, Lance said.

“We have to let employees do what they feel is right,” she said. “Because otherwise, there’s another company that will let them work remotely or let them prioritize what they need.”

Taylor Hardee, left, and Jasmine Distin, right, decide finishes for a design at the Workscapes Tampa office.
Taylor Hardee, left, and Jasmine Distin, right, decide finishes for a design at the Workscapes Tampa office. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
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Tech Data is taking similar steps. The technology distribution firm will continue remote work for its 2,000 Clearwater employees indefinitely, according to spokesman Bobby Eagle.

But not all companies are sold on keeping work at home.

Tampa International Airport still requires the 150 or so employees able to work remotely to come into the office three days per week. When asked if that mandate would change in light of the COVID-19 surge, spokeswoman Veronica Cintron said, “Not at this time.”

Employees at Workscapes, a Tampa furniture distribution company, have reported in-person three days a week for several months, too. After Labor Day, the company will up that mandate to four days a week, CEO Elizabeth Dvorak said.

It’s in an effort to bring spontaneity into the workplace again. Dvorak said, “When you’re not in person, you lose that side-by-side learning, that communication, the serendipitous meetings that happen in the break room, the innovation that takes place when you peer over into someone’s office and say ‘Hey, what do you think about this?”

After the pandemic shuttered employees in their homes, the office should be an oasis, she added, with spaces for “socialization, team collaboration and individual focus time.”

To make workplaces safer, the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County is even offering to come to businesses and vaccinate employees — at no cost. (Employers can sign up at PinellasHealth.com.)

St. Petersburg’s Raymond James Financial is holding off on changing its return schedule. “Given the transmission of the delta variant, if a decision about our September return to office was required today, we would not move forward with our current plans,” read an internal note at the financial services firm.

Related: As inventory grows, Tampa Bay’s office space market sees upswing

The return-to-office dilemma is especially prevalent in downtown Tampa, which accommodated 60,000 office workers before the pandemic, according to Tampa Downtown Partnership president Lynda Remund.

Remund said downtown property managers saw more in-person employees — around 35 to 50 percent of pre-pandemic numbers — three weeks ago. She is unsure if those crowds have gotten smaller since.

The partnership postponed its large events to the end of October. But several conferences and luncheons in Tampa remain on the calendar, Remund said.

Regardless of companies’ ultimate plan, List of Global Workplace Analytics said employees need communication.

“Employers really need to get the word out there,” she said. “Even if they haven’t made a decision, they need to tell people they’re thinking about pushing the date, or they’re going to start losing people out of fear.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of one employer. Workscapes is a Tampa furniture distribution company.

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