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Workers Can’t Wait to Return, but Delta Variant Upends Plans

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SAN FRANCISCO — Before the pandemic, Roya Joseph’s days at the office were defined by interaction. She looked forward to casual conversations with co-workers, mentorship sessions with managers and periodic, freewheeling chats — known as “teatime” — in the office kitchen.

All that was swept away when Ms. Joseph, a water engineer for Black & Veatch, an engineering firm, was sent home from her Walnut Creek, Calif., office along with the rest of her colleagues as the coronavirus began spreading through the United States last year. She jumped at the opportunity to return when her office reopened to some employees in June.

But two weeks ago, the rug was pulled out from under her again. Black & Veatch shut its offices as virus cases rose nationwide, driven by the contagious Delta variant.

“It’s depressing,” Ms. Joseph, 32, said. “I feel like we’re being pushed back to that isolation bubble. I feel like, mentally, I’m not ready to face that again.”

While workers who want to stay at home forever have been especially vocal about their demands, a silent majority of Americans do want to get back to the office, at least for a few days a week. But as the latest coronavirus surge has led employers to delay return-to-office plans, that larger group is growing increasingly glum.

In a national survey of more than 950 workers, conducted in mid-August by Morning Consult on behalf of The New York Times, 31 percent said they would prefer to work from home full time. By comparison, 45 percent said they wanted to be in a workplace or an office full time. The remaining 24 percent said they wanted to split time between work and home.

Morning Consult surveyed workers from a variety of industries, so white-collar office workers were represented alongside those working in other fields, like retail. The data intelligence company’s findings echoed recent internal surveys by employers like Google and Twitter, as well as outside surveys by firms like Eden Workplace.

Among those craving the routines of office life and cubicle chatter: social butterflies, managers, new hires eager to meet colleagues, and people with noisy or crowded homes.

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Veronica Polivanaya in her shared workspace at home in San Francisco.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Veronica Polivanaya, an account manager at the public relations firm Inkhouse, quickly realized just how loud San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood could be when she started working from home. There was the distraction of her boyfriend’s daily routine — sometimes he got up from his own work to make lunch or get water and ended up in the background of her video calls. Then there were the neighbor’s barking dogs. Package deliveries. Construction noise.

“That’s been a hard struggle for us,” Ms. Polivanaya, 30, said. “I feel like I don’t have a good space to focus in.” She was able to return to the relative quiet of her office for a few days a week starting in July, but she worried that the surging virus could send her back to her hectic work-from-home life.

Certainly, some people have thrived in their new remote work lives. They saved time and money, and sometimes increased productivity. The degree to which employees have embraced permanent remote or hybrid work models has been “stunning” to company executives, said Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied remote work for decades.

But for others, Professor Neeley said, it has removed needed barriers between work and home life, increased a sense of isolation and led to burnout. “Some people just dislike the screen — their physicality and their proximity to others is a big part of what work looks like,” she said.

Many workers are back in offices already. Just 13 percent of Americans worked from home at some point in July, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated, down from a pandemic peak of 35 percent in May 2020. And some workers have said the Delta variant has not changed their employers’ return-to-office plans.

But an increasing number of high-profile companies, like Hollywood studios, Wall Street banks and Silicon Valley tech giants, have delayed their returns. For the pro-return-to-office crowd, the fits and starts have been excruciating, Professor Neeley said.

“We are in this perpetual state of waiting, and that now has been extended with more uncertainty,” she said.

David Pantera, an incoming assistant product marketing manager at Google, said the company had decided to turn the September orientation for him and other new hires into a virtual event because of rising Covid-19 cases. Google’s process, known as “Noogler orientation,” is usually a social, community-building event meant to acclimate employees with one another and the company’s culture.

Mr. Pantera, a 23-year-old recent college graduate, said he was eager to start his new job but worried about whether missing out on that in-person experience would hinder his career prospects.

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David Pantera, a new hire at Google, worried that the switch to virtual orientation next month might affect his career.Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

“If we don’t get a really solid foundation at this company in our first six months, our first year, what foot does that leave us on for the rest of our time at the company?” said Mr. Pantera, who lives in San Francisco. “What if that disillusions a lot of really bright, passionate, smart people from the industry?”

For Michael Anthony Orona, 38, starting a new job during the pandemic was isolating. He was thrilled to finally meet his colleagues at Blue Squad, a company that provides tech tools to progressive political candidates, when its office in Austin, Texas, reopened several months ago.

Then his 10-year-old daughter caught Covid, forcing Mr. Orona, his wife and his two children to hole up at home. He found juggling the job and caring for his children to be nearly impossible to manage. Sometimes he had to cancel meetings to make sure his 2-year-old son got down for a nap.

“I’m with our 2 1/2 -year-old all the time, and I try to cram in a couple hours of work around that,” he said. “And then when we get him down for bed, I work into the middle of the night. It’s awful.”

He caught Covid, too, but recently tested negative and returned to work, and his children are back at school and day care. But he expects additional quarantines.

“It feels like we’re never going to get out of this,” Mr. Orona said. “For people who are working, both parents, it’s totally unsustainable.”

In Toronto, Alethea Bakogeorge is counting the days until she can return to her job at a musical theater company. Working from home, she said, has “eroded the boundaries between work space and home space,” even causing her to occasionally skip meals to avoid spending more time in the kitchen, which doubles as her office.

Ms. Bakogeorge, 25, has cerebral palsy, a condition that causes chronic pain. Her daily walking commutes to the office, she said, provided a form of mild exercise that helped her cope.

“I didn’t realize how much of an impact that had on my physical health as a disabled person, and how much I missed it when it was no longer there,” she said.

But the spike in coronavirus cases has dashed her hopes of a summer return.

“In May, I thought we might be trending in a direction where I could go back to the office,” she said. “Now, with the Delta variant being what it is, I think it is far less realistic for me to hope for a return to the office anytime in the near future.”

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