Workers sit in privacy pods made by office furniture company Steelcase that serve as one option for reconfiguring businesses for employees to return to the office. The product is sold by Red Thread, a regional company that operates in Maine and has delayed a planned office reopening due to the rise of the omicron variant. Credit: Courtesy of Red Thread

Maine businesses that were planning to bring employees back to offices in the new year are rethinking their strategies as the more contagious omicron COVID-19 variant spreads.

The returns would have signaled that the virus was being managed successfully. But a sharp uptick of omicron variant cases and lingering delta infections have put the brakes on plans to return to pre-pandemic work conditions. At the same time, the uncertainty about possible new variants cements the reality that hybrid work is here to stay.

“Omicron has created a caution and concern with making sure that we don’t rush back,” Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce said.

The delayed returns also give employees at businesses with 100 or more workers who fall under the federal vaccine mandate more time to get shots, which can be difficult to schedule because of high demand. An estimated 169,000 Maine workers face vaccination or testing under President Joe Biden’s plan, which has extended the dates to meet testing and vaccine requirements from January until early February.

Red Thread, which had planned to bring workers into offices on Jan. 3, will revisit its back-to-office plans at the end of January, said Stephanie Brock, vice president of sales for the regional company that creates hybrid office layouts and technology. The plan was to bring workers in for two days a week to interact with each other and learn new technology the company was installing. She said 91 percent of the company’s 100 regional employees are vaccinated, with 10 workers in Portland.

“I just don’t think enough information was available before the holidays for our leadership to feel confident that a full return was safe for all employees,” said Brock, who works in Red Thread’s Portland office.

MEMIC, a Portland-based workers’ compensation insurance company, planned to bring back employees for three days per week starting Jan. 3, but has delayed that until Feb. 7, because of the omicron surge. It has more than 300 employees in Portland. About 97 percent of the company’s workforce is fully vaccinated.

Tilson Technology, a telecommunications infrastructure company based in Portland, said most of its Maine-based employees have been working from home for months and omicron isn’t changing that. Unum Insurance, also based in Portland, has a hybrid work model based on the employee roles at the company. It is monitoring the pandemic and will adjust its approach to keep safe, a spokesperson said.

Brock of Red Thread said she’s not sure how recommendations for booster shots and the new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines around isolation will affect the company’s decision on whether or when to have workers return to the office.

The CDC changed its guidance this week for people who test positive for COVID-19 to isolating for five days instead of 10. Those who do not have symptoms after five days, you can leave isolation so long as you continue to wear a mask when around other people for an additional five days.

The renewed uncertainty over COVID-19 and its variants will continue to affect companies as case numbers climb. Maine health officials reported Wednesday that 18 more Mainers have died and another 1,325 coronavirus cases were reported across the state, bringing the total number of coronavirus cases in Maine to 144,538.

Some experts are predicting it could take decades to shake the pandemic’s effects on individuals, businesses and the economy. The effects may linger even after COVID-19 illnesses and deaths have subsided, after the economy recovers and life looks like it is normal, experts told The New York Times, because of the psychological shock of fearing illness for so long and living in some degree of isolation.

That means businesses will have to take circumstances as they come and adapt, Tony Payne, a MEMIC spokesperson, said.

“We’ll walk away with a lot of lessons, such as ‘a dispersed workforce can be effective,’” he said.