The Delta variant feels like a sequel to a movie that nobody wants to see. As a response to the rising COVID-19 cases in parts of the country, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended this week that those who are vaccinated should start wearing masks in schools and in public indoor spaces in parts of the country where transmission levels are high or substantial. Nearly 64% of U.S counties are at a high or substantial risk level according to the CDC.
Just last week, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky announced that the Delta variant now makes up 83% of all COVID-19 cases in the U.S. Some parts of the country have been affected more than others. States with lower vaccination rates have seen a rise in cases with three states—Missouri, Florida, and Texas—making up 40% of all cases nationwide last week, according to White House Coronavirus Response CoordinatorJeff Zients.
Private and public entities have been responding. This week, the Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs one of the nation’s largest health systems, announced it would mandate coronavirus vaccines for its front-line workers. California and New York City this week gave government workers a choice: Get vaccinated or face weekly testing. Last week, Los Angeles County became the first county to enforce a mask mandate, The National Football League instituted a penalty meant to incentivize players to get vaccinated, and Apple told its workforce that it would push back its return-to-office date from September to October.
So what does this mean for agencies? Most are left in a wait and see mode. Some have just started allowing employees back to the office and many already require employees to be vaccinated if they choose to attend the office. Many agencies are staying on their return to work path while monitoring state and federal guidelines closely. Others are fully embracing remote life and some shops are even canceling the plans they made as a response to the rise in cases.
Holding companies are sticking with their current return to work plans while monitoring the situation closely, adjusting state to state. Back in May, Omnicom CEO John Wren sent a holding company-wide internal memo outlining guidelines for agencies returning to the office as a response to inquiries by employees. In the letter, Wren said the plan to return to an “office-centric culture” will be gradual and will vary by country, depending on the infection and vaccination rates. During the holding company’s second-quarter earnings call last week, Wren said Omnicom’s plans haven’t changed yet.
“There's hesitancy on the part of everyone, but we can't predict the future,” Wren said. “One of the things that gives me some comfort is that when you get past the headlines and you read the people that have been impacted, it's people who haven't been vaccinated, received only one shot of a two-shot protocol or already had an existing health problem of one form or another. We’re starting to bring back the vaccinated people, in earnest, after Labor Day. People are encouraged to come back to the office. We do know that we've lived through a hell of a past, and we've done it successfully. So that gives us confidence.”
Also during an earnings call last week. Philippe Krakosky, CEO of Interpublic Group of Cos., said the holding company expects to “have more people returning to our offices, in a flexible, hybrid model, beginning in mid-September, as is already the case in certain other areas of the world. We will, of course, be mindful of the public health situation, and of the learnings we’ve accumulated during the past 16 months when it comes to flexible work practices.”
Publicis Groupe doesn’t have one set return date but is letting agencies decide on the local state-to-state level, Arthur Sadoun, Chairman-CEO of Publicis Groupe, told Ad Age. The holding company will continue to use its AI-powered platform, Marcel, which fully launched last year, as the go-to for tools and resources for employees to return to the office.
A spokeswoman for WPP says the company is taking a market-by-market approach to its response to the pandemic and the return to offices: "We are carefully monitoring recent spikes in cases, and if needed will adjust our plans."
The changing situation around the country has left many agencies second-guessing its plans. Los Angeles agency Omelet had been planning for a hybrid return to the office in the fall after Labor Day, with staff going in two to three days a week. But now that could change.
“With the new mask mandates and Delta Variant information, it's certainly giving us pause to ensure that we are listening to the science as remote work is still working for our business, even though it's not ideal for us as a company of humans who quite miss one another's company,” says Omelet CEO Thas Naseemuddeen. "I've learned that this is something you've got to just navigate day to day—sometimes hour by hour. We're making decisions with the best info we have in the moment and that's absolutely all we can do.”
Most of the 30 agencies interviewed for this story have recently started allowing only vaccinated employees into their offices on an optional basis, with unvaccinated employees remaining fully remote. One such agency is Omnicom’s TBWA which, according to a spokeswoman, is preparing most of its agencies to adopt a hybrid return to work model in the fall. Specifically, TBWA\Chiat\Day New York and Los Angeles are still planning for a hybrid return to the office in September.