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Companies Patiently and Cautiously Establish Return-to-Office Policies

Employees' comfort levels, performance drive reopening decisions

A welcome back note on a keyboard next to a bottle of hand sanitizer.

​As the coronavirus slowly becomes endemic around the country, HR teams are weighing caution, health, safety, flexibility and their employees' comfort levels in their plans to return to the workplace.

According to a Bloomberg Morning Consult poll in mid-January, most workers would rather quit than return to the office. The poll showed that 55 percent of remote workers would consider leaving their job if asked back before they felt safe, up from 45 percent a week earlier.

And given the hiring challenges so many companies are facing today, employers need to get return-to-work plans right. There are several viable approaches.

The March Toward March

Leslie Tarnacki, senior vice president of human resources at WorkForce Software, said her U.S. operations remain virtual, but she anticipates transitioning to a hybrid work environment toward the end of the first quarter.

"Six to 12 months ago, we were planning to be back to an in-person office structure or minimally hybrid office attendance, but this ever-evolving virus makes it difficult to solidly forecast anything," she said. "Future] plans won't be drastically different because we've always been agile and able to pivot in response to changes in different regions to different COVID spikes. We have evaluated things monthly to be sure we're not rushing into anything that could put our employees at risk.

"We continually conduct surveys and meetings, allowing our employees the opportunity to communicate questions, concerns and general feelings about returning to the office. We have let employees know that we're committed to supporting ongoing virtual work or a hybrid in-office/virtual mix if that's the right thing for an employee's situation."

Tarnacki said her company is fortunate that it has the technology and leadership to support an agile work environment.

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Return to Work

Sticking with Hybrid

Donna Flynn, vice president of global talent for Steelcase, said the company started working in a hybrid fashion in early 2021 and has been able to safely continue with that despite virus waves.

"We're back in the office because we believe we work better when we're together—it's what builds our communities of belonging and helps us make meaningful progress," she said. "Togetherness doesn't necessarily happen over video. It's the before, after and in between meetings that we continue to learn from one another."

She said Steelcase believes in empowering its employees to choose the best work situation for them to achieve commitments and deliver results, and "it's a decision that may change from day to day because we recognize the risk and varying comfort levels that accompany employee decisions."

She added, "We are moving forward empathetically, recognizing everyone is tired from the constant adaptation and challenges brought by the pandemic. We trust employees make the right decisions for their work and for their physical and mental well-being as well as that of their households. We're listening to our employees … and heavily relying on the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance as we monitor situations on a local level for each location, ramping the return to the office up or down accordingly."

Focusing on Results More Than Office Hours

Amy Zimmerman, chief people officer for Relay Payments, said her company determined early on that working in the office would be optional. It has prioritized results and impact over managing hours onsite.

"As omicron has picked up speed, fewer of us have met in person, but we haven't changed anything from a policy perspective."

With fewer than 10 positions requiring staff in the physical office, Zimmerman said it's up to each individual to decide whether they want to work from the office or elsewhere.

Empowering a Remote-First Workplace

Curbio operations executive and CFO Jennifer Moyer is waiting to see how the situation evolves before making longer-term decisions about a return to the office.

"We continue to follow a remote-work policy and have invested resources in empowering a remote-first workforce," Moyer said. "At certain points during the pandemic, when the situation allowed us to do so safely, we gave employees the option of going into an office, with safeguards in place. That policy is continuously revisited based on the health situation and by following guidelines from local health departments and the Centers for Disease Control, as well as what we hear from employees.

"We hear from a majority of the team that they are most comfortable working remotely, which has certainly played into our decisions. As an added benefit, our remote-work policy has allowed us to eliminate the geographic boundary when hiring new talent."

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Remote Work

Soft Openings and 'Community' Models

Joe Du Bey, CEO of Eden Workplace, said he has seen partial office openings from many clients in the past several months.

"Soft openings can work for the subset of their workforce that is most hungry to return to the office—often the team members who are missing their community, do creative work that benefits from collaboration or are early in their careers."

Ruben Ugarte, a data and decision strategist, said most companies are doing everything they can to return to pre-pandemic office culture, but the reality is that work expectations have fundamentally changed.

"Employees want flexibility in where and when they work," he said. "Bringing people into the office just for them to sit next to each other while wearing headphones makes no sense.

"The best companies are shifting into a 'community center' model where offices are gathering places for social events. People come together to relax and share ideas. Companies can explore structured and unstructured office days, both of which are wholly focused on letting people engage. Let employees do all other work from their houses, couch or local coffee shop."

Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.


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