The Return-To-Office Dilemma
The pendulum is beginning its swing back from remote-only working. But how each company prepares its employees for this movement, and where exactly the pendulum will stop, are still topics of debate.
When COVID-19 first swept into the United States like a tidal wave early last year, pretty much everyone except essential workers in key industries were sent home. Companies didn’t know much about 100% remote-work environments, but they quickly figured out a way to make it work and soon realized their employees could be pretty effective outside the traditional workplace. Some companies even began talking about employees “never” having to return to the office again.
Fast-forward to a little over a year later, and while remote productivity is still sound, there’s a growing fatigue around videoconferences and webinars for holding “all hands” meetings. Long gone are the Zoom “happy hours” that never really worked but felt better than talking to yourself. Combined with the recent mass availability of a COVID-19 vaccine and relaxed guidance around social distancing and wearing a mask, many companies are now grappling with how to bring their workers back to the office—maybe even earlier than thought possible just a few months ago.
As I predicted in an earlier Forbes piece, the pendulum is beginning its swing back from remote-only working. But how each company prepares its employees for this movement, and where exactly the pendulum will stop, are still topics of debate.
Communicating The Value Of The Traditional Office
For many employees, working from home during the pandemic has “worked” from a personal perspective. Rigid office hours and long commutes were eliminated, creating more time to spend with family or to pursue outside interests. In a survey by Pew Research Center, over half of employees said that, vaccinated or not, given the choice they would want to keep working from home even after the current crisis is gone.
This is why companies must overtly communicate the value of spending time in the office to both their employees and to the organization as a whole. While this “value” was assumed before since everyone just showed up to the office and collaboration, culture, and creativity organically happened, employers must now articulate what’s missing at home and what can be gained from being back in the office. Foremost, we like to think that most workers believe in their company’s mission and business operations and want to be a core part of them. If employees understand exactly why their return is critical to the organization’s (and their professional) success, then it’s no longer interpreted as a potential drawback or inconvenience, but as a positive where all parties benefit. Understanding the “why” behind a decision is infinitely better than just being told to “do it because that’s what we used to do.”
That being said, the key reason why employees need to return to the workplace is to aid in group collaboration and to reinforce their sense of connection to others who collectively comprise the organization as a whole. While they might enjoy the extra hour of sleeping in or more time to spend on individual interests that at-home scenarios allow, few would argue in favor of the isolation of remote working and how it has tampered with our sense of being “part.”
Because humans are by nature social beings, the more personal, natural interaction made possible by return-to-office initiatives is key to the greater good. Few of us will miss the seemingly endless group videoconferences with workers in “The Brady Bunch” style boxes on our computer screens. In fact, most of us will welcome a return to face-to-face meetings that further empower productive group discussion. Workers that return will do so to take part in such active endeavors, not to close their office doors and answer emails or sit in on the same Zoom calls they could have done from their bedroom or home office.
Risk Tolerance In Return-to-Office Strategies
My own firm began a staggered return to the office last summer, with staff coming in on different days to support social distancing and with safety protocols such as mask-wearing, capacity limits, and restrictions on visitors in place. Of course, this return was and continues to be on a voluntary basis, with the acknowledgment that people have different levels of risk tolerance due to age, underlying health conditions, or even anxiety over exposure. Even with vaccine availability, it is important to continue to consider such sensitivities as companies contemplate, plan, and execute their office returns.
Our experience has been that most employees want to come back to the office, at least for a few days a week, and they tend to come in most frequently on the days when group meetings are planned. Or, perhaps said a better way, small group meetings are planned when they can be done in the office, rather than through a computer screen. We’re also seeing an increasing number of unstructured discussions in hallways and reception areas—with safety precautions taken—one of the most difficult-to-replicate aspects when working remotely. These unscheduled meetings build culture, drive creativity, and ultimately lead to a more effective and higher-performing organization.
The Workplace Has Changed, But Some Things Remain The Same
We’ve learned from the past year’s remote-working experiment that “nine-to-five” workdays inside physical offices aren’t always necessary for employee performance. In fact, some movement away from this model can positively contribute to worker satisfaction and quality of life. As the pandemic has proven, high-speed Internet, collaboration tools, and cloud computing have enabled workers to be productive from basically any locale.
But even with such supporting technology, some degree of face-to-face interaction remains vital for most organizations to function at optimum levels—and it’s something that has clearly been missing from our work-from-home environments.
My personal perspective is that the remote-work pendulum will stop somewhere in the middle, with most companies returning workers to the office, at least in part, in coming months as safety parameters are more fully explored and defined. This should come with varying levels of flexibility that accommodate employees’ newfound taste for greater freedom from the traditional workplace. In this case, you CAN have both.
To be sure, the office as we knew it has likely changed forever. However, despite our ability to fully untether from the office, the need to bring workers together for the sake of personal and professional discussion, enrichment, and collaboration will bring us back. Workers who understand this important “why” of coming back to the office will gladly return, at least for a portion of each week, with enthusiasm to engage with their fellow employees.
As the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. We’ve missed the office camaraderie and creativity that comes from being part of a team, so we’ll continue to look forward as the pendulum gently swings toward in-person collaboration.
This article was originally published in Forbes and reprinted with permission.