As COVID-19 vaccines began making their way into millions of arms earlier this year, office reopening plans were announced by music companies across the industry, promising a return to business-as-usual after more than a year largely spent working from home.
Only a few months later, the delta variant has sent coronavirus infections surging across the U.S., forcing these same companies to reconsider their reopening strategies as well as their stances on mandating vaccines for employees. A handful of the 10 companies surveyed by Billboard pushed their full reopenings from September (the initial target date for most music companies) into October, while others — most notably tech giants Facebook and Amazon — have set a target early 2022. The remaining companies — namely UMG, Sony Music and Live Nation — have left their full returns open-ended as they assess the unfolding situation.
In terms of vaccine mandates, roughly half of companies surveyed are requiring that employees provide proof of inoculation before returning to the office. At Spotify, the ultimate decision not to mandate vaccines wasn’t an easy one, with internal discussions mirroring the highly-polarized nature of the issue in the U.S. “It’s definitely been hotly debated,” says Spotify Spotify communications executive Eileen Moore, who handles all employee and internal communications at the company. “I know that our senior leaders in the HR team and employees all have pretty strong feelings about it.”
Moore adds that the highly-global nature of the Spotify workforce — the company boasts 50 offices across 25 countries — made instituting a blanket vaccine mandate even more challenging. “In some countries, in some regions, it would actually be illegal to do so,” says Moore, “and so we’re just sort of taking the stance that people will make good decisions.”
Notably, local ordinances in major urban centers could force companies’ hands. Earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that a proof of vaccination will be required to enter indoor restaurants, gyms and performance venues in the city starting on Aug. 16 — though the order does not yet apply to offices. Last Tuesday, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted to look into options for requiring residents to show proof of vaccination in indoor spaces where crowds gather, to be followed by a two-week discussion over whether to apply the mandate to some or all indoor public spaces, and whether to require full or partial vaccination. Just one day later, the L.A. City Council voted 13-0 to approve a similar motion, with details of that prospective mandate to be decided in consultation with businesses, business organizations and council offices.
Here’s where the leading music companies are dealing with this new, unpredictable phase of the pandemic and pivoting with the delta variant.
Universal Music Group
On July 23, UMG executive vp and chief people and inclusion officer Eric Hutcherson sent an internal note to U.S. employees stating that the company’s original mid-September return-to-office date was being pushed back due to the rise of the delta variant, Billboard has learned. Hutcherson noted that the company continues to consult its medical advisors — with the goal of alleviating any COVID-19 risks for its employees — and that an updated timeline will be shared at a later date. When the time comes, UMG plans to implement a phased return and introduce hybrid work schedules, though it has not yet taken a stance on vaccination requirements.
Sony has postponed its full reopening indefinitely amid the surging delta variant, Billboard has learned, having previously set a full return after Labor Day. The company will nevertheless continue its voluntary return through September — and beginning on Sept. 7, all employees who choose to go back must be fully vaccinated. A source previously told Billboard that the company would support more work-from-home flexibility for employees moving forward.
Warner Music Group
All fully-vaccinated WMG employees in the U.S. are currently allowed to return to the office on a voluntary basis, though the company has delayed its September return to an unspecified “later date” in October, Billboard has learned. Upon returning, employees must be vaccinated to enter WMG buildings, though limited exceptions will be made under certain circumstances in accordance with applicable laws.
So far, BMG is sticking with its original plan to gradually increase capacity at its U.S. offices (which have been running at 25% capacity since June) in the fall before mounting a full reopening at the beginning of next year. As COO Ben Katovsky previously told Billboard, most BMG employees will be permitted to work from home two days a week going forward. There is no vaccination mandate for employees at this time.
The promoter will require its staff to be vaccinated before returning to the office (in addition to the company’s events and venues) beginning on Oct. 4, when Live Nation offices are slated to reopen for “flex work,” according to a statement CEO Michael Rapino sent to employees on Aug. 6.
The L.A.-based concert promotion company is requiring full-time employees working at company offices in the U.S. to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Employees returned to the office in June and have until Oct. 1 to present evidence of vaccination.
Though Spotify’s work-from-home arrangement for all employees globally was extended until Sept. 1, 2021, the streaming giant isn’t planning to reopen all of its offices on that date. Instead, the company is taking a phased, city-by-city approach to reopening by tracking local government guidelines. A Spotify representative notes that it is “strongly encouraging” all Spotify employees to get vaccinated while “closely following guidelines of local health officials around the world,” though the company is not mandating it. Regardless of vaccination status, all employees will be required to wear masks while working out of the office.
As offices reopen, Spotify will continue to roll out its previously announced “Work From Anywhere” policy, which allows employees to work full time from home, the office, or a combination of the two — with the “exact mix of home and office work mode” left up to each employee and their manager.
According to reports, Apple has pushed its office reopening date from September to October — at the earliest — and will give employees at least a month’s warning before mandating a return. Apple CEO Tim Cook previously told CNBC that the company is considering a vaccine mandate for employees, and reports indicate the company is requesting the vaccination status of employees in some locations and suggesting that additional health and safety protocols may apply to unvaccinated workers.
After previously setting a Sept. 7 return-to-office for its employees in the U.S. and some other countries, on Aug. 5 Amazon pushed its reopening date to Jan. 3, 2022. According to a statement posted to its corporate website, the timeline “will vary globally in accordance with local conditions.” The company hasn’t yet indicated whether it will require proof of vaccination for returning employees.
Concord has set a tentative return-to-office date of Oct. 18, Billboard has learned, though the company hasn’t yet decided whether it will require proof of vaccination for employees upon their return.
On July 28, Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai wrote a public note to employees stating that the company’s global voluntary work-from-home policy was being extended through Oct. 18. Pichai added that the company would “continue watching the data carefully” and inform employees at least 30 days in advance of transitioning to a full return-to-office plan. The company is additionally extending its Expanded Carer’s Leave program through the end of 2021 for parents and caregivers; those with “special circumstances” will also be allowed to apply to work from home through the end of the year.
In addition, anyone returning to one of Google’s campuses must be vaccinated, a policy that’s slated to roll out in the coming weeks in the U.S. and expand to other regions in the coming months. “The implementation will vary according to local conditions and regulations, and will not apply until vaccines are widely available in your area,” Pichai wrote. Details about an exceptions process for those who cannot be vaccinated “for medical or other protected reasons” will be shared at a later date.
Founder Mark Zuckerburg has notified employees that Facebook’s return-to-office plans are being delayed until Jan. 2022. The company previously announced an October reopening, with a vaccine mandate for all U.S. employees returning to the office and a mask mandate regardless of their vaccination status.
“Data, not dates, is what drives our approach for returning to the office,” said a Facebook spokesperson in a statement sent to Billboard. “Given the recent health data showing rising Covid cases based on the Delta variant, our teams in the US will not be required to go back to the office until January 2022. We expect this to be the case for some countries outside of the US, as well. We continue to monitor the situation and work with experts to ensure our return to office plans prioritize everyone’s safety.”