Is it for real this time?

A return to the office seems imminent, but that Delta variant isn’t helping

Is it for real this time?

My son is gearing up to head to university in a few weeks for the first time. He won’t be going far, just downtown, but he’ll be in residence so it’ll definitely be a big change for a 17 year old – and his parents.

There’s still a lot of uncertainty about how it will all roll out. To stay in residence, he must provide proof of vaccination, which makes a lot of sense. But that’s not the case when it comes to the university campus or classrooms, which is understandable but still concerning.

Right now, with COVID cases low and vaccination rates still climbing in Ontario, it’s easy to feel considerable relief about the pandemic and the potential for infections. We’re all enjoying a lovely summer, with cottage season and patio get-togethers back to normal.

But that Delta variant is not easily forgotten, as seen in a recent poll from Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies. Fifty-four per cent of Canadians say the worst of the COVID-19 crisis is already over, down considerably from 63 per cent who believed so in a survey last month.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has described Delta as more transmissible than the common cold and influenza, and viruses that cause smallpox, MERS, SARS and Ebola, according to an internal document obtained by The New York Times. We still don’t know how exactly it interacts with vaccines and how much of a threat it really is.

So when employers such as Deloitte and SAP – and even my own – talk about return-to-office plans and a hybrid scenario, it still feels a bit unreal. Should we be making these moves right now? Are we really in the clear, or is this similar to last year when talk of the “return to normal” in May was quickly quashed as the virus loomed large yet again?

I know that many of us feel we’ve been kept hostage for too long by COVID-19, and we can’t keep our lives on hold forever. Yes, another wave may come but a return to the office can still work in that scenario, with employees safely working from home two or three days a week to minimize the risks.

There’s still the challenge of a commute on crowded buses and subway trains, along with crowded offices if employers aren’t careful to schedule and distance staff accordingly.

But hopefully we can muddle our way through and bring back that much-needed energy and community and collaboration of the workplace.

And, worst case, if we are indeed forced to return to our homes full time, at least we have a much greater sense of what that entails. Sadly, we’ve all become experts on how to deal with a pandemic.

And hopefully for the many students starting or returning to university or college, they can enjoy a semblance of true post-secondary life – both for their mental health and their professional lives.

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