Back to the Office by Labor Day?

HR departments roll out hybrid, flexible, mandatory return-to-workplace plans

By Paul Bergeron July 8, 2021
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Back to the Office by Labor Day?

While companies and their employees have been enduring workplace closures due to the pandemic for well over a year, most HR teams have been imagining and planning for the physical reopening of their office spaces.

Decisions about this significant, symbolic event have been months in the making. HR professionals, working in tandem with their C-suites, have taken into account state and federal guidelines, employee sentiment, the company's bottom line, and the value of in-person employee and customer interactions.

Policies vary based on geographic region, including urban versus suburban locations; the size and scope of the office; and whether the company focuses on services or manufacturing. Hybrid-work and flexible-scheduling arrangements have never been more prominent or necessary for many employers. Others have determined that mandating a full-time return to the physical office is most appropriate.

Gartner reported that 1.1 billion employees worldwide worked from home in 2020, more than triple the 350 million who did so in 2019. Gartner said 60 percent of companies around the world are developing a permanent hybrid-work model (no more than three days in the office per week) as the pandemic wanes.

The record number of people quitting their jobs, combined with more jobs becoming available as the economy reopens, has made getting this right even more crucial for executive teams faced with attracting new talent and retaining their most valued workers.

Employers also are cognizant of what their team members need to care for their children, even as many summer camps and day care centers are not operating at full capacity. Employers are aware this presents commuting and logistical challenges for many of their workers, something that must be factored into their reopening decisions.

"Zoom fatigue" has truly set in. Employees miss each other, and many have not met new co-workers in person. Clients are ready to conduct business face to face, either in an office or elsewhere.

Based on its study of 10 major metropolitan areas, office access software provider Kastle Systems reported that 31.5 percent of employees returned to the office the week ending June 9, up from 29 percent the week prior and 28.1 percent for May 19.

Within that cohort, Texas markets led the way by a considerable amount (Dallas, 49.7 percent; Austin, 48.7 percent; and Houston, 47.7 percent), perhaps because it has some of the least restrictive COVID-19 laws in the country.

Kastle also found that the legal industry is returning to the office at rates 10 percentage points higher than other businesses. The study is based on card swipes to enter commercial office buildings.

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Speed of Change: Crawl, Walk, Run

Stacey Berk, founder and managing consultant at Expand HR Consulting in Rockville, Md., noted that her clients' progression back to the office either began in late June or will start in September.

"Discussions and planning have been very different this spring and early summer versus during earlier planning stages in the pandemic," Berk said. "Employers have been taking a much more assertive approach than before. CEOs are driving the spirit of going back to the office to regain the company culture and teamwork.

"There's more cover for employers with the updated EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] guidance [on asking about or requiring COVID-19 vaccinations]," she continued. "With the successful vaccine rollout and schools restarting in a traditional format this coming September, we have noted that there is a sense of acceptance with employees and a willingness to move forward and get back to the office environment. On the other hand, some employees who have moved away from their main office location or enjoyed the flexibility work from home [WFH] brings are not embracing the return. The risk is that they may quit if a substantial reason for WFH is not agreed upon with the employer."

Giving workers flexibility has become table stakes for technology companies, where competition for talent remains fierce.

Kevin Rooney, chief administrative officer at West Monroe Partners, a national technology consulting firm based in Chicago, said his company's approach to reopening can be described as crawl, walk, run.

"I can gladly say we are transitioning from the walk stage to more of a jog stage," Rooney said. "We have already learned how to operate safely and effectively by using [software and technology] tools. We will move to the run stage once we fully define our return-to-office policy. We are close to defining expectations to ensure that we blend flexibility and career equity in our approach. We aim to communicate the finalized approach to our people within the next six weeks.

"With the constant stage of change we're all in, we'd like to stay flexible," he added. "Up to now, it has felt a bit like building a plan on quicksand."

Prior to the pandemic, West Monroe consultants typically performed their work at client sites and returned to the office once a week on Fridays, according to Rooney. "But the new way of working will be noticeably more flexible," he noted. "We envision that we will be traveling less and performing more work in our home markets, so it may look fairly different."

All of West Monroe's eight offices are open, Rooney said. The firm decided the best time to ask employees to come back to the office more regularly is toward the end of the summer, typically marked by Labor Day and the start of the school year.

"Right now, we're focused on creating an environment where people want to come in and are treating this summer as a transition period because we realize this is not going to be an overnight change," he said. "People have formed new habits during the past 14 months working from home, and it will take change management and a transition period for what we're calling 'reboarding.' "

By the end of the summer, Rooney said, "we will be able to focus on getting back to what our new-normal, hybrid-work environment looks like, where we can welcome everyone back for both social events and collaboration work."

Flexible Philosophy

Global technology firm Nintex says its stance on returning to the office is more of a philosophy than a policy. It has more than 800 employees in 13 offices worldwide. Its headquarters is in Bellevue, Wash.

"Flexibility is our biggest priority," said Chief People Officer Nellie Thompson. "We're working on a model that allows our team members to work productively, remain connected and drive successful business outcomes, regardless of their physical location."

Nintex is not requiring that employees return to the office, she said, but it will continue to maintain its global office spaces "because we acknowledge the value that they bring to providing an in-person opportunity for alternative workspaces as creative and collaboration centers, and as celebration and social hubs. Tactically, our internal requirement is that masks and face coverings are not required when local regulations permit gatherings of at least 50 percent capacity."

Before the pandemic, telecommuting was seen as a perk but not a necessity, Thompson said. "However, that paradigm is shifting as working professionals continue requesting more flexibility in the workplace—recognizing the need for more flexibility and autonomy with their work schedules," she noted.

Thompson said Nintex trusts its team members to determine where they will do their best work and to choose their workplace accordingly. "We have seen in the past year, with high engagement scores and record business performance, that being physically in the office is not a requirement to do our best work," she said.

Nintex also will develop a curriculum for management teams specifically focusing on well-being, empathy and learning agility, which have been increasingly more important over the last year, Thompson said.

With the constant stage of change we're all in, we'd like to stay flexible. Up to now, it has felt a bit like building a plan on quicksand.

Meanwhile, manufacturing firms have operated on a different plane, with many having been classified as essential employers by their states. Their office staff size tends to be small. Manufacturing company Darnel, based in Monroe, N.C., is one example. Chief People Officer Robert L. Guy, SHRM-SCP, said his company's office staff worked from home from April 2020 to March 2021.

"We invited all to return in March 2021 once COVID vaccinations became available for essential workers," Guy said. "We only had one office employee who asked to extend time away for one additional month until they became fully vaccinated. As we have seen in all areas, our employees were eager to come back to the office to be able to see each other again and make the most of collaboration, which suffered slightly in the virtual work world."

Acuity is a global industrial technology company based in Atlanta with 12,000 employees, about one-third of whom are office workers. The majority of its manufacturing jobs are in Mexico.

It launched Acuity Anywhere, a hybrid-work model with all jobs classified as onsite, flexible or remote. Onsite associates work within Acuity facilities, flexible associates split their time between an Acuity facility and a home office, and remote associates work primarily from home. Acuity Anywhere allows associates to contribute, grow professionally and achieve results whether they work onsite or remotely.

"The pandemic proved to be a proof point for us," said Chief Human Resource Officer Dianne Mills. "Working remotely worked out really well for us. We spent the past few months when planning for this policy asking ourselves, 'How will we explain to our workers who performed so well during the pandemic that they will have to go back to the previous office policy?' They aren't interested in going back to a 1.5-hour commute when they can use that time to be even more productive at home."

Employees 'Mature Enough' to Decide

Maria Clyde, SHRM-SCP, director of human resources at BHI in Newark, Del., said one of her professional services clients whose workforce was entirely remote told its employees they will need to start working two or three days each week in the office by July 15 to better satisfy client and team needs.

"The thought is that employees are professionally mature enough to know when it's best to work in the office versus work from home," Clyde said. "Unfortunately, that isn't always the case, so there's a caveat in the policy that the team manager makes the final call and may ask you to come into work due to business need."

Clyde said other BHI clients won't allow work from home on Mondays and Fridays.

"This is smart during the summer," Clyde said. "It helps to avoid loss of productivity and any distractions from 'long' weekends."

Remote Work Has Its Benefits

Jennifer Tyrrell, SHRM-SCP, vice president of HR at Centurion Health in Vienna, Va., has not yet settled on a return-to-office policy. Her parent company has a structured process in place, but as a subsidiary to it, she is looking at a different approach.

"We are currently working under the direction of a Sept. 13 return-to-office [date], and right now we have left it to our department heads to determine what the expectations of their separate teams will be," Tyrrell said. "Nothing is formalized at this point. We are in discovery and discussion phase."

Tyrrell said her assumption is that Centurion will be more open to work-from-home or remote-work arrangements than has historically been the case, especially for those employees in nonexempt positions. "There are concrete benefits that we've seen from this new working model," she noted.

Tyrrell said she's read that some employees are comfortable with earning less pay if they can work from home because it allows them to save on things like commuting time, wardrobe expenses, and pet-sitting and pet-walking costs. One research effort found this to be true: 64 percent of respondents would choose to work from home permanently over receiving a $30,000 raise, according to a survey of employees at 45 of the largest U.S. companies by professional network Blind.

"We have also seen steady-to-increased productivity during the pandemic, though also more burnout," Tyrrell said.

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Employee Feedback During Changing Situations

West Monroe's Rooney said employee feedback is "very important to us in any type of decision-making we do at the firm. We have conducted one-on-one discussions and 11 employee focus groups [made up of] people at all levels to understand what is important to our employees and how we can maintain a sense of culture."

Dendreon is a biotechnology company headquartered in Seal Beach, Calif. Its COVID-19 task force, which is made up of several executives and representatives from the health and safety, communications, and legal departments, meets twice a week to evaluate changes from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state and local agencies, and child care and school groups.

Nintex's Thompson gathers team members' sentiments with a weekly survey.

"We will assess productivity with a predefined objective and results measurement," Thompson said. "We will assess working practices to be sensitive to any team member's feelings of seclusion, helplessness and more."

Many HR teams say their policies are fluid. The summer is an opportunity to test and learn about a policy's effectiveness, according to Rooney.

"It's a mistake for companies to think they're ever finished," he said. "We are continually working on our culture and our ways of working to ensure that our employees are fulfilled. We recognize that 15 months is a long time in which new habits have been formed. We see this opportunity as a new 'moment that matters' in our employee life cycle."

Rooney is proud of how West Monroe and its employees have met this moment together.

"We have been nimble and positioned ourselves to continue to grow the next generation of leaders," he said. "Constant communication and continued listening to both our people and our clients—combined with a willingness to be responsive—will serve us well into the future. It has not been easy for anyone, and we recognize the toll it has taken on many. We will continue to adjust to meet the needs of our people and clients."

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

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