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'Businesses will need to adapt' | Meck Co. health officials give go-ahead for businesses bringing workers back to office

With the pandemic becoming an endemic, local health leaders say as long as proper precautions and flexibility is offered, office work can continue.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mecklenburg County health leaders gave the green light to companies bringing employees back to the office, and many are taking their own approaches.

Just before omicron surged in the U.S., many businesses and corporations delayed their plans to bring workers back to the office. 

However, as cases and hospitalizations in Mecklenburg County trend down, that could change. 

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"At this time, we're not advising businesses to not bring people to the office," Dr. Raynard Washington, Mecklenburg County's health director said. "I think it's certainly possible to do and can be done."

The promising statement came with a caveat. Washington said in-office work will only be successful and healthy with the right flexibility and precautions taken by employers.

"Businesses should offer flexibility to employees if needed if they have COVID infections," Washington said. "You want to make it as easy as possible for people to adhere to isolation guidance." 

Washington also reminded business owners and corporations about the simple steps they can take to make the office a safe place to work at. 

"If you implement vaccine incentives or vaccine requirements are helpful to make sure your workforce is protected," Washington said. "Mask wearing, environmental controls, and building ways to manage knowing COVID is here."

Some companies in Charlotte's heart have already welcomed part of their workforce back to offices.

Bank of America is one of them. They've gradually brought employees back and are continuing to do so. 

Duke Energy has a current rule only allowing buildings to have a 50% capacity as they bring people back to the offices, a spokesman said. Many at Duke Energy work a hybrid option, working part of the week at home and part of it in the office. 

Wells Fargo workers were supposed to return to the office on Jan. 10, 2022, but the bank delayed that return and it's still on hold, according to a spokesperson for the bank. No new date has been given. 

"What we're hearing from employers is -- we're fatigued with the pandemic, we're learning to live with this as a way of life," Cheryl Richards, PhD, said. She's the CEO of Catapult, North Carolina's employer's association. 

In a recent study, more than 70% of employers told Catapult they already have workers back in the office, according to Richards. Nearly 60% of companies said they'd offer a hybrid work model to employees, and 7% of businesses said they would not require workers to head back to the office in some format, she said. 

"One thing employers need to think about is flexible accommodations for individuals," she said. 

"Over the last two years people have been able to prove that they can work remotely," she said. "But the other important piece is having culture and having that community back in an organization and that's really hard to sustain in a virtual environment."

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Health leaders said a company's flexibility will be important as the pandemic becomes a lasting endemic. 

"When we have high levels of community transmission, businesses will need to adapt or adjust their practices during those periods of transmission," Washington said. 

Contact Hunter Sáenz at hsaenz@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.