Returning To Regular Operations As the Pandemic Weakens

The move is on. From global enterprises to Main Street shops, businesses are gradually migrating back to normal operations in these days and weeks of seemingly ebbing COVID. Companies are loosening the profit-crushing COVID restraints imposed on daily business functioning since the emergence of the virus two years ago in March 2020.
Along with a virus-wary but quarantine-weary public, reluctant business leaders are now shuffling toward normalized operating modes. It’s a risk. People have figured out how to get things done efficiently at home and in modified workplace environments under emergency health and safety policies. But a guarded eagerness to get back to the good old days of two years ago, with its traffic jams and long lines at the breakfast drive-through, is overriding lingering health concerns.

Of course, progress on this track is subject to the whims of the virus. Business owners, employees, consumers, and COVID-19 medical science experts alike are braced for an uncertain future through the remaining of 2022. Nevertheless, the country is tiptoeing back to regular work routines. Workers are ironing their clothes and making their way with their laptops from the kitchen table back to the office, and the kids are reacclimating to daycare.

Status of the COVID Pandemic Two Years In – March 2022

COVID-19 infection rates in the US dropped in February 2022 to 150,000 from the shocking January numbers, which marked a 2-year record high of 455,000 new cases. Hospitalizations due to the virus have come down by 45% from January to February. In more good pandemic news, the CDC has announced that nearly 70% of U.S. Americans have received the full course of vaccinations. That’s huge, obviously, in terms of how much hope it is reasonable to have that the coming months may present further declining numbers and severity of COVID cases.

Strategic Planning In Utter Unpredictability

This year, business planners are up against it. Meaningful quarterly planning is a fraught prospect. Concerns about COVID resurgence in the form of some new exotic and vaccine-resistant strains make P&L forecasting a guessing game. The line item totals are no longer groundable in rationales based on past performance analysis or anticipated future market and internal conditions.

There’s uncertainty about viral mutations and the possible need for yet more vaccine adaptations. And, there’s the fear of potential weakening of immunity from the existing vaccinations. So, there’s also no point in forming cost assumptions and income projections in consideration of medical science experts’ expectations. Naturally, they’re learning in real-time as the virus is doing whatever it’s going to do this year. What will happen? The cliché: Only time will tell, apparently.

While we’re all waiting to see what’s in store, companies and consumers continue making the best of things. Some businesses continue to take full precautions. Others appear to have all but forgotten about the pandemic, no longer bothering with masking, social distancing, and quarantining. Adding to that contradiction in business confidence levels, consumer spending took a hard fall in January and February 2022 and rebounded in late Q1.
So, planners are confronted with a dizzying whirl of scattering data on potential variant surges and market fluctuations. Remember when strategic business planning used to sound more glamorous, or at least more realistic as an endeavor?

The Hesitant Move Toward Regular Business Operations

There are dual and dichotomous realities we find in the business community when it comes to perceptions of our position as a species and a society in relation to the power of the pandemic to further ravage the population. Regardless of those, here’s what’s clear: Despite all the uncertainties, U.S. businesses and their workers are returning to pre-pandemic work routines.

Facebook: Meta is planning to have staff back to working at the office by March 31.
Tyson Foods: The food giant is ending mask mandates for vaccinated workers at some plants.
Walmart: The largest US employer is ending mask requirements for fully vaccinated workers.
Amazon: Reportedly, management has announced plans to move toward normal operations.
Microsoft: The company has set dates for some staff to start working some hours at the office.
Just some weeks ago, rates of infection by the Omicron variant spiked to a new record for that strain of COVID. In a knee-jerk response, companies stepped up their policies on mask requirements to meet the skyrocketing threat level. They ordered more testing and canceled plans to have employees working remotely come back to the office. So, the current shift to get workers back on business campuses is a bold change of direction by leadership.

But, this is not the first time for that quick switch. Management throughout the business sector has been vacillating on what to do about COVID precautions — whether to stay the course on the special health and safety enforcements or relax everything. One professional working remotely since the start of the pandemic reportedly said she has received multiple notices from her employer of a mandatory return to the office that was subsequently canceled when the virus rebounded yet again. She described the experience as “like you’re getting whiplash” with so much back and forth, planning, and canceling.

The New Normal in the Post-COVID Work Environment

By now, we’ve all probably heard the analyses of business and industry watchers speculating that the new business normal going forward cannot be like the pre-COVID reality. They cite evidence that many companies plan to have workers continue masking or testing for the foreseeable future. They also note what the working conditions will feel like for the millions of retail and food service employees, (and we could add commercial pavement sweeping services employees), who have stayed on the business frontlines as essential workers from the start of the pandemic.

Those people have been working with restricted numbers of masked building occupants. Those workers, who have been diligently obeying all the special health rules, are to be surrounded daily by crowds of returning workers and patrons without masks while COVID resurgence is still a risk.

Many business managers now say that lately, they have been reasoning to conclusions about what’s in their organizations’ best interests based more on the impressions they’re getting from the attitudes of their employees and customers. They seem to see those observable responses to the circumstances as more reliable indicators of upcoming activity than how and what other businesses in their area are doing. They’re reportedly even leaning more on those signals than on the best science-based speculations about the direction the COVID numbers may take over the remaining quarters of 2022.

Maybe their instincts are right, or not. They’re acting on the age-old business adage: when in doubt, do something. How should that approach be expected to play out in market and operations environments riddled with COVID variables? Again, the most that can be said with a high degree of confidence is that time will tell.