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Return to the Office Isn’t a Return to Normal

After yet more pushbacks and return date cancellations in the wake of the spread of the Omicron variant, it’s become clear that the return to the office is not happening. Workers will be back, but the grand return to normal is no longer a date to look forward to but a process to be carried out. “These [return to the office] dates are now history,” Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Nick Bloom, who studies remote work, told CNBC Make It. “Everything is completely off.”

Nearly three years of the COVID-19 pandemic has dashed even the most cautious return dates. The best-laid plans have so far been unable to predict the course of the coronavirus as it mutates and spreads with increasing speed. First, we tried to flatten the curve, hoping by summer we’d be back. Surging cases and hospitalizations pushed return dates back to the fall. Then the deadly 2020 winter surge pushed dates back further. Vaccinations began rolling out to the public in early 2021, managers set their sights on a summer return. Then the Delta variant forced offices to reconsider yet again. Finally, it appeared the fading Delta variant and rising number of vaccinations and boosters would have this whole thing behind us by 2022, but Omicron was not to be outdone. Likely the most contagious form of the virus, Omicron has seen caseloads spike faster than at any time during the pandemic. Offices that have already opened are choosing to close down again, sending employees home for the foreseeable future. More than two-thirds of CEOs surveyed by Gartner report having to delay return to the office plans at least once. Mounting revisions and delays to return plans have some managers scrapping the idea altogether. 

The nation’s largest employers are back at the drawing board. Google, Delta Airlines, Chevron, Bank of America, Apple, BlackRock, Starbucks, and Goldman Sachs have all either delayed or changed their return-office plans and COVID-19 protocols. Even JP Morgan Chase, one of the biggest advocates for the office, has told employees they can work from home at their manager’s discretion, at least through the end of January. What isn’t clear is whether the spread of Omicron is the latest sign of hubris from employers or the development that transitions the virus into a less-deadly endemic problem that can be mitigated. Businesses are finally thinking about how they will come back, not just when. 

Dateless

Getting workers back into the office isn’t as simple as setting a date, it never has been. If occupiers had made serious demands to invest in better ventilation in our buildings from the start, we might not be here. Instead, we’ve been kicking the can down the road for two years, waiting for safety when we could be making it happen. A successful return to the office isn’t about picking the magic date but rather understanding the complicated relationship between the current situation with the pandemic, global health guidelines, and employee sentiments. Employers serious about getting workers back in the office must master their understanding of all three, that’s the complicated task of getting workers back into the office. Confidence in a return date isn’t nearly as effective as consideration. “They say the hardest three words for a CEO to say are ‘I don’t know’, but those have to be used because you’re dealing with adults who have their own information,” Professor Bloom said. “We saw what happened when leaders projected false confidence in May or June 2020, but we’ve all learned the best policy is just being honest with employees.”

Done making plans that only erode confidence in their fruition, business leaders are switching from RTO (Return to Office) to IDK (I Don’t Know). It’s better that way for all involved. Most employees aren’t children that simply do what they’re told, mandates and confidence only go so far when you’re dealing with adults that have access to their own information. When a CEO sets a return date, employees might look up the case numbers and roll their eyes. Honest dialogue and feedback go further to getting employees back in the office than edicts and projection. “Employees understand the evolving nature of what we’re dealing with makes it impossible to predict,” DocuSign Chief People Officer Joan Burke told the New York Times. “I can’t even remember all the dates we’ve put out there, and I’m the one who put them out there.”

Finally moving past specific dates and focusing on intention rather than scheduling is the key to the return to work. Things aren’t going back to normal. Employees don’t want to see their workplaces revert, they want to see them evolve. If you’re waiting for the right time for it to be safe to return, keep waiting. But if you’re serious about the return to the office, more thought and consideration must be given than scheduling. Creating new workplace policies and investing in mitigation efforts will create the type of safe workplace employees feel comfortable coming back to. That means allowing hybrid work policies, increased sick leave, and emphasizing vaccinations, according to experts. 

Living with it

Business leaders are closely watching the evolving CDC guidelines. Recently the CDC announced it was cutting the recommended isolation time after a positive test from 10 days to 5 regardless of vaccination status. That means sick employees could be back in the office sooner. However, the CDC still recommends anyone exposed to someone with COVID-19 quarantine and wear a mask for 10 days. Dr. Fauci indicated the CDC is considering a new rule that Americans test negative before leaving isolation, a move scientists have been urging. If enacted, employers who want workers back in the office would need to find ways to supply tests to employees in isolation. Many businesses are trying, buying tests in bulk to ensure enough supply to keep their workforce moving. 

Early indications are that the Omicron variant may be more contagious but is less severe. Scientists and medical professionals haven’t seen a spike in hospitalizations corresponding with a spike in infections like with previous surges and variants. While some of that may be down to the efficacy and prevalence of vaccines, the latest research is showing Omicron doesn’t infect cells deep in the lungs as readily, lowering its threat to our breathing. A less deadly form of the virus may be what moves us past the pandemic. If Omicron becomes the dominant strain of COVID-19, as it is on track to do, then living with the virus could soon become feasible given proper mitigation and vaccination efforts. Right now health organizations and business leaders are weighing safety against science, trying to strike the right balance in an ever-evolving situation. 

Whenever and whatever the return to the office looks like, it won’t be the same as it was in 2019. Many employees’ eyes have been opened to remote work and they refuse to close them. A historic workers movement has them demanding more flexibility from their employers or they walk. Waves of resignations have heightened the stakes of the return to the office. Going about the return to the office wrong could see some employees never return at all. That’s why establishing a process for their return rather than a date is key. An open dialogue between employees and management about the return to the office factors in employee sentiment in a productive, rather than contentious, way.

It’s okay for employers to admit they don’t have the answers. No one does. A return to the office date isn’t an answer or plan, it’s an optimistic projection. A real plan to return to the office requires employers to do hard work creating systems, policies, and dialogue that account for the past two years. With a real plan in place and employee trust solidified, when the timing is right, we will be able to say return to the office is finally happening. 

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