In yet another sign of mounting uncertainty about the course of the pandemic and its impacts on on-site work, Microsoft has indefinitely postponed its return to the office.

On Thursday, the Redmond-based tech giant told its 180,000 workers that a return to the office, which had been expected to begin by Oct. 4, would again be delayed as a result of the “evolving Delta variant” and that the company wasn’t even going to try to predict when a return might actually happen.

“Given the uncertainty of COVID-19, we’ve decided against attempting to forecast a new date for a full reopening of our U.S. work sites,” Jared Spataro, a corporate vice president, said in a company blog post.

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The decision follows postponements by other tech firms, underscoring broader uncertainties about the future of office work as employers adjust to a pandemic that is showing no sign of a quick resolution, said Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington historian who has written extensively about tech hubs like Seattle.

“I think we’re kind of moving from an emergency situation to the ‘new normal,'” O’Mara said.

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The announcement comes as the Biden administration said it will order all companies with 100 or more employees to require workers to have vaccines. Last month, Microsoft said it was requiring vaccinations for all employees, vendors and others entering Microsoft buildings in the United States, and was also pushing back a planned return date of Sept. 7 to Oct. 4.

The latest postponement by Microsoft is another blow for businesses near the company’s main campus in Redmond and at its facilities in other neighborhoods, such as downtown Seattle. Many had seen their business fall after Microsoft sent its workers home in spring 2020 and had hoped to see a wave of returning business from some of the roughly 58,000 Microsoft workers based in the Puget Sound region.

But those hopes have been put on hold.

At Matts’ Rotisserie & Oyster Lounge in Redmond, manager Nissa Svantner worried that lunch business from Microsoft employees, who had been coming in more steadily in recent months, would be affected by the announcement.

Already, she said, reservations for Friday lunches for Microsoft teams that were made as recently as Wednesday were being canceled. “I was actually really shocked,” Svantner said. “Today, I’ve taken four calls already for meetings that have just been canceled.”

Microsoft employs about 180,000 full-time workers, of whom 103,000 are in the U.S.

The postponed office return appears to be part of a broader acknowledgment at Microsoft of the changes COVID-19 is imposing on how and where work is performed. “The evolving Delta variant is compelling many of us to adjust plans for reopening worksites,” Spataro said. “It’s a stark reminder that this is the new normal. Our ability to come together will ebb and flow.”

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Thursday’s acknowledgment also comes as the tech giant has made a big push to tailor its suite of workplace software products to homebound workers and timed its delayed reopening announcement with a number of new product features.

A hybrid approach permitting employees to toggle between remote and in-office work has been widely embraced in the technology industry, particularly among the largest companies with the biggest payrolls.

In March, Microsoft announced what it called a hybrid workplace “dial” that, as Kurt DelBene, executive vice president, said, “allows us to quickly adjust our work sites depending on health conditions, while also staying data-driven in our decision-making.” 

Many tech companies had plans for bringing back most of their workers around Labor Day weekend, but Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and a growing list of others have already decided to wait until next year.

Microsoft will wait for public health guidance on when it is safe to return, Spataro said. It will then give workers a 30-day transition period to prepare.

Although Microsoft said it has adapted to a hybrid model of work, the company said it was closely monitoring performance and employee attitudes and would remain flexible in its approach. “But there’s no guarantee that these positive trends will continue in [the hybrid model], and difficulties remain,” Spataro said. “As we navigate remote work during a pandemic, our employee surveys show continued challenges to satisfaction with work-life balance and team connection.”

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And, indeed, some Microsoft employees were openly disappointed by the postponement.

“It has been very difficult for me to do my job with COVID,” said Robert Goodwin, a senior engineer who works with Bing at a Microsoft office in Bellevue. Although Goodwin is among those who works in office, he says interacting with other workers remotely isn’t always effective. “I oftentimes get brought into hard technical problems, which are really difficult to get to the bottom on over to video calls,” he said.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

This coverage is partially underwritten by Microsoft Philanthropies. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.

Navigating the pandemic
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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