The COVID-19 pandemic may be settling into society as an endemic infection like the flu, but according to a recent Pew Research Center study, that doesn't mean employees are ready to head back to the office. The firm's survey found that almost 6 out of 10 U.S. workers who can work from home are still working from home all or most of the time.
While it's a decline from the 71 percent of employees who worked from home in October 2020, it's still more than two-and-a-half times more than those who teleworked frequently before March 2020. And yet, as the spike in cases from the omicron variant continues its downward trajectory, companies large and small are asking employees to come back to the office either full time or part time. American Express, BNC Mellon, Citibank, Ford Motor Co. and Google, among many others, have implemented return-to-office policies.
The disconnect—between what employees said they prefer versus what companies are asking them to do—is creating friction. Figuring out how to bring people back without hard feelings (or too much complaining) is going to take some work.
Finding Middle Ground
Earthbound Brands, a product design and licensing firm in New York City, is on the other side of this journey. The company started bringing employees back to the office in June 2021 using a slow, phased approach, said Michelle Corbett, the company's director of people. Teams were split into two groups: Half of the employees went into the office on Mondays and Tuesdays while the other half went in on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
"For us, the important factors were making sure that when you were there, you were achieving different goals than when you were at home," Corbett said. "We're primarily a design organization, so we have industrial designers, graphic designers, textile designers, apparel designers—it's a very tactile group. And they are constantly looking at samples or building inspiration walls or printing on large-format printers. A lot of the work really needs to be done in the office."
The need to have people in the office was so great that management decided to expand the return-to-work plan, making coming into the office Monday through Wednesday mandatory and allowing people to work remotely Thursday and Friday if they wanted to.
"We shifted the workflow of certain meetings to accommodate that in-person schedule. And then we found that it was really good to have people sort of wind down their week at home so that they knew there was that balance of the team time as well as … individual time," Corbett said.
This gradual return to office was accompanied by "lots of communication," she said. Employees were informed of why the decisions were made, and feedback was solicited from everyone along the way. The company also pulled back on its plan when omicron spiked in the area, sending people home from mid-December 2021 until Jan. 31, 2022.
This strategy is one of three options that Taylor Griffin, chief operating officer of The Miles Group consulting firm in New York City, suggested that human resource professionals consider when plotting a return-to-work strategy. Not every plan will be palatable for every employer.
"[You can] take a hard line on returning and deal with the noise up front and let it settle down; create significantly more clarity on what hybrid will mean and look like in the organization; or let the environment play out while employees have a lot of power—voluntary models," Griffin said. "It will likely course-correct over time because the lack of being in person will have increasing impacts."
SourceCode Communications, a technology public relations agency in New York City, has followed the lead of its employees since the beginning of the pandemic, making decisions based on state and local guidelines as well as employee needs, said Jeanne Hernandez, human resources lead. Many employees would prefer to be back in the office, and it's important to listen to them, too. Hernandez gives the example of a junior employee who asked to go back to the office early on in the pandemic.
"They were the first individual to reach out to our managing partner and say, 'I'm really struggling. I have roommates at home, and I'm being distracted by them. I'm also distracted by the day-to-day worry. I can see that my work is not as good as I would like. What can I do?' The response was, 'Let's reopen the office for you.' We told them they were more than welcome to go to the office, and they did," she said.
Stephen Miles, founder and CEO of The Miles Group, said companies are recognizing that, while virtual work may be appealing for many, it has drawbacks. It's hard to give feedback, mentoring or coaching in a remote setting, and people may not know how to set work/life balance boundaries. He believes that once companies get more than 40 percent of their employees back into the office, more workers will follow naturally.
"From zero to around 40 percent in the office is extremely hard because employees mostly just see it as they're being forced to the office to sit in front of their screen. So why can they not just keep doing that from home, they are asking. Above 40 percent seems to be the magic percentage when 'office FOMO' kicks in, and people see they are missing out on something," he said. "They don't want to be part of the 'out' group."
Earthbound Brands' Corbett said this desire to see co-workers was on full display on Jan. 31 when the office reopened to everyone.
"I have to say, the energy in the office when we came back was so palpable. People were excited to see their colleagues, they were excited to get to work together again. People were hugging," she said. "You're never going to find a one-size-fits-all approach, so the best thing to do is to really just take the time out to listen, to help people feel heard and to work on individual circumstances.'"
Karen J. Bannan is a freelance writer based in New York.