Colorado Office Workers Are More Uncertain Than Ever Over Return-To-Workplace Plans Amid The Delta Variant Surge

August 18, 2021
DENVER-WORKADAY-BUSINESSDENVER-WORKADAY-BUSINESSHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Downtown Denver near Union Station, June 4, 2021

The Delta variant has thrown a wrench in plans to return to the office this fall. Mask mandates are back in some places — and other businesses have delayed their return indefinitely.

Even before COVID-19 cases started surging again, there wasn't a lot of consensus on the best way to bring people back together in an office setting.

That’s leaving companies stuck in a holding pattern. Managers don’t want to force people back in, especially with so much uncertainty about the pandemic. 

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Downtown Denver is starting to look a little less empty.

The foot traffic in downtown Denver on an average weekday is a fraction of what it was before the pandemic. But there are people that are already back to the daily commute — and they have opinions about going back to the way things were — sort of.

Will Coleman was walking down 17th Street a few blocks from the Capitol building last week. It was lunchtime, and he was carrying a bunch of sandwiches back to his coworkers at the Colorado Health Foundation. Coleman works in IT and facilities management — and never completely left the office.

“Vendors still have to come in and flowers still have to be watered and that type of thing, so I personally once a week have always been there,” Coleman said.

He’s been coming in more frequently to prepare for the rest of the staff’s return on Sept. 1, and said he’s fine doing his work both remotely and in the office. But he can see some challenges to bringing people back with COVID-19 protocols.

“If we’re [going to] actually ultimately not be able to talk to each other that much, and interact with each other that much — or from a distance — it kind of takes away from the point of it… right?”

But he’s ready for a return to whatever “normal” is these days.

“I want people to come back that want to be there … it's cool to see people again,” Coleman said. 

For some workers, returning to the office has been a welcome change.

Guyre Pendleton was sitting on a bench in front of the Wells Fargo Center, and clearly dressed for a day at the office. She works in accounting at an energy firm, and has been coming in four days a week since the middle of June. She says HR has been good about communicating — and that 88 percent of employees were vaccinated before the company came back to the office.

She feels safe. And she wanted to come back.

“I worked from home for a year and a half and I was getting tired of it,” Pendleton said.

Distractions are Pendleton’s biggest issue with working from home. Primarily, it’s her husband.

“He’s retired.”

Will Cross and Matt Faga were sitting outside eating lunch in button down shirts. They’re lawyers at a small firm in downtown Denver. They were out enjoying the camaraderie of being back in one place. Their lunch conversation was casual.

“Everything not work-related … just catching up, that’s about it… vacation plans or what we did for our vacations, things like that,” Cross said.

They said the office has been almost full lately. But there’s no plan to force people back in — especially now with the Delta variant.

“It’s been nice because it's been relaxed and encouraged to come back but not mandated or required or anything like that,” Cross said.

But plenty of workers don’t see the return to the office as relaxed.

People walking around downtown in the middle of the week these days are often people that are choosing to be there, for a variety of reasons.

The people who are uncomfortable returning to the office, or who are more productive at home, or who don’t want to deal with a long commute, are hard to find in the business district.

Those people might be less likely to speak openly about how they feel.

Colorado Public Radio received an email from a woman who asked to be anonymous to protect her job. She says she feels pressure to return, and that her company explicitly prohibits employees from asking others about their vaccination status. She’s concerned there are people at work that aren’t taking COVID-19 seriously. She doesn’t want to come back in — but doesn’t know how to tell her boss that.

That tension hangs over a lot of workplaces. Coleman with the Colorado Health Foundation says that while he is looking forward to seeing coworkers in person, he understands that there could be hesitancy.

“If they are not going to be able to be the way they are, or half are uncomfortable, it kind of numbs that feeling a little bit so it’s not as nice. It’s tough. It’s a tough call either way.” 

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