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Many employers have been refining hybrid work arrangements and experimenting with rotating staff through the office to adhere to physical distancing guidelines.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Concerns about the rapid spread of the Omicron variant are throwing a wrench into company plans for a broader return to the office in January and putting added pressure on local businesses that had benefited from higher foot traffic in commercial districts.

On Tuesday, Sun Life Financial Inc. said it was pausing a pilot return-to-office project until the end of January and would not add more employees to the program, which was launched last summer, citing concerns about Omicron. The company was also considering additional safety measures in its office, even though the vast majority of its staff are still working remotely.

A day earlier, Bank of Nova Scotia said a previously announced plan to start most employees on a phased return to the office on Jan. 17 had been put on hold. Spokesperson Clancy Zeifman said the bank was “pausing its plans” in response to the latest guidance from the Ontario government “and will reassess timing in the new year.”

The province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, recently urged employers to keep employees working remotely where possible, and Ontario and Toronto have delayed plans to bring more public servants back to the office.

Though most of Canada’s largest employers had yet to issue company-wide orders to bring employees back to the workplace regularly, increasing numbers of people had been turning up at offices either voluntarily or with gentle encouragement from their superiors. The emergence of Omicron, on the cusp of the Christmas holidays, now threatens to reverse that trend, at least in the short term.

In Toronto’s financial district, “foot traffic was absolutely picking up,” said Lara Zink, the chief executive officer of Women in Capital Markets. “I think all of that is on hold.” As COVID-19 case numbers tick higher, bank employees are likely going to be told to stay home, she said.

For small businesses such as restaurants, cafés and barbers in downtown cores, a return to the office also meant the return of customers. A delay means those businesses have to hold on longer with diminished foot traffic.

Christine Leadman, the executive director of the Bank Street BIA in downtown Ottawa, said the pandemic has been devastating for businesses in her city’s core, which includes a number of office buildings owned by the federal government.

“Our main streets are really suffering,” she said.

She said there seemed to be an increase in the number of workers returning to the office this fall, which generated some optimism among her members. But she said a number of the businesses in her district are raising concerns about the variant.

“It’s a grave concern to businesses,” she said. “People who maybe took their lunch hour to go and get their hair done, or go and get that extra Christmas gift that they missed … that’s all disappeared.”

Many employers have been refining hybrid work arrangements and experimenting with rotating staff through the office to adhere to physical distancing guidelines. But with the new variant creating renewed uncertainty about government reopening plans, “many businesses have now delayed their return-to-work strategies,” Rocco Rossi, the CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, said in an e-mail.

Telecommunications giant Telus Corp. is aiming for a “voluntary and limited” return to the office starting Jan. 31 but is monitoring developments around Omicron and will make a final decision in the middle of January. Even when Telus offices do reopen, the company expects about 90 per cent of employees will still work remotely.

“We are closely monitoring the situation and will promptly apply the required changes to our return to office plans,” Erin Dermer, a Telus spokesperson, said in an e-mail.

Manulife Financial Corp. , the country’s largest insurer, announced last month that it plans to reopen buildings on Jan. 24, implementing hybrid work arrangements that will require staff to come in three days a week. A company spokesperson declined to comment on the status of that plan Tuesday.

Other large banks and insurers, which have critical staff working on site but a majority of employees working remotely, have repeatedly pushed back timelines for a broader return to the office and more recently avoided setting firm target dates. On Tuesday, spokespeople for several large financial institutions declined to provide updates on their expected timelines.

Even workers in jobs that were at the vanguard of the march back to offices could be compelled to retreat. At banks, many traders have spent months working rotating schedules that keep trading floors busy but below full capacity. But even they may be forced back to home offices set up in the early months of the pandemic.

“I suspect the trading floors will go into temporary shutdown until the data confirms what we’re dealing with,” Ms. Zink said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone was told to stay home until the end of January, until the whole effect of the holiday passes us.”

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