Apple Inc., responding to a surge in COVID variants, is pushing back its office re-opening by at least a month to October at the earliest and recommending that workers at its retail stores wear masks, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

The iPhone maker is one of the first U.S. tech giants to delay plans for a return to normality as COVID-19 and highly transmissible variants persist around the world. Apple will give employees at least a month’s warning before mandating a return to offices, the people said, asking for anonymity to discuss internal policy.

Store workers, vaccinated or not, are being urged to start wearing masks again, other people familiar with the matter said. In regions where local authorities have reinstated mask mandates, retail workers must comply, the company told employees. Apple had dropped its internal mask mandate in June.

Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook told employees in June that they should begin returning to offices by early September for at least three days a week. In an internal memo at the time, Cook cited the availability of vaccinations and declining infection rates. Some employees of the Cupertino, California-based technology giant have worked from Apple offices on certain days throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet even with half the U.S. vaccinated, COVID-19 continues to kill people faster than guns, car crashes and influenza combined, according to a Bloomberg review of mortality data. After 10 weeks of global declines in COVID deaths, the highly transmissible delta variant is driving a new uptick. In the U.S., health officials have warned that a similar reversal may be underway: Daily cases have doubled from a low point last month, and hospitalizations are rising again.

Corporations across the globe are grappling with how to adjust to shifting work demands in the post-COVID era. Apple’s decision comes as its own employees criticized the September deadline as too early. In an email to employees about the return delay, Apple cited COVID-19 rather than employee concerns about limited remote options.

Apple shares rose over than 3 per cent Tuesday morning in New York to US$146.99. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment on the postponement.

When Apple employees are eventually required to return, they are expected to work from the office on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Wednesday and Fridays will be optionally remote for some staff members, while those working on hardware will be required to work from the office four or five days per week. Apple also said it would offer staff two weeks of remote work annually. The hybrid return to work arrangement is a pilot, Apple told staff, and will be reevaluated next year.

Even before COVID, the company had grappled with a potential loss of talent as workers -- despite being relatively high earners -- complain they can barely afford the extraordinary cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Just a few years after completing the multibillion-dollar Apple Park headquarters in Cupertino, California, Apple is now ramping up efforts to decentralize out of Silicon Valley.

In the tech industry, many workers have come to view remote work as a coveted perk. Several Silicon Valley companies have been bringing workers back to the office only slowly. Facebook Inc. has said it will drastically expand the number of employees who can work remotely even after the pandemic — although their salaries may be adjusted based on their location. And Alphabet Inc.’s Google recently introduced a more permissive return-to-work policy that allows for staff to work from different locations or entirely from home.

Separately, Apple plans to start testing a hybrid in-store and work-from-home arrangement for retail employees, acknowledging that consumers may continue to prefer online shopping even as the pandemic eases.