Making the Case for Return to Office

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. March 29, 2021
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a masked worker before a masked receptionist

​As a rising percentage of the population receives vaccines for COVID-19, many employers want employees to return to the workplace. Some employees, feeling isolated, want to return. But some don't, and employers will need to make the case for bringing them back.

"Many employers have found telework during COVID to be successful for their organizations," said Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP. Despite this, many "people managers have seen a decline in the productivity gains experienced at the outset of the pandemic, citing employees' need for the psychosocial elements of work. Savvy employers have found safe means for engaging in return-to-worksite with a focus on building better people manager mechanisms and resources for employee wellness." He added that while there will be more remote-work opportunities post-COVID-19 than before, he believes "the majority of employers will return to a worksite as their primary office." 

CEOs globally are wrestling with the best next step for their employees, but most agree a decision should be made soon. "For most employers, it is time to return to work or make a decision about making remote work a more permanent part of the organization," said Ashley Cuttino, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Greenville, S.C.

To be sure, Greg Abrams, an attorney with Faegre Drinker in Chicago, noted that some change is inevitable. "Employers need to be mindful that employees will be returning to a work environment that simply cannot be the same as the one that existed a year ago."

One challenge is employees' fear about whether returning to work is safe, Cuttino said. "The No. 1 thing employers should do is communicate about their safety plans and what the workplace will look like when they come back," she said.

Employers will need to communicate return-to-work plans and emphasize the business rationale for that approach, said Michael Arnold, an attorney with Mintz in New York City. "Providing that basis will go a long way toward building the trust necessary to ensure that employees are ready to return and know they are returning for the right reasons."

SHRM Resource Hub Page
Return to Work

Business Case

Reasons employers have for requiring a return to the worksite, according to Philippe Weiss, president of Seyfarth at Work in Chicago, include:

  • A belief that productivity increases for some roles.
  • The ability for executives and managers to check in and assess what workers are doing.

Interacting in person helps employees foster relationships with co-workers, build trust, collaborate more successfully and advance within the organization, which in turn drives workers' productivity and morale, Arnold said.

Employers had to move mass portions of the workforce to remote work quickly at the pandemic's outset. Now, most employers realize they need to either resume normal business operations or invest in more permanent remote work in the future, Cuttino said.

Employees' Perspectives

"Employees who desire to return to the office—and, to be clear, many don't—are hoping to resume camaraderie and collegiality," Abrams said.

Working from home can leave employees feeling isolated despite all the technology that keeps workers connected, said Diane Welch, an attorney with McDonald Carano in Las Vegas. "This is particularly true for those employees who live alone and miss interacting with co-workers and customers."

Based on a survey of more than 500 participants from companies of all sizes, Seyfarth at Work found that the things remote employees miss the most include:

  • In-person workplace conversations (cited by 61 percent of respondents).
  • The regular and daily structure of reporting to a worksite (42 percent).
  • Lunches and happy hours with colleagues (40 percent).
  • Reduced interruptions by kids during the workday (37 percent).

Employees also like "the convenience of [being at the worksite] with easy access to technology, equipment and supplies, which facilitates working faster and results in a better work product," Welch said.

Challenges 

But hurdles remain to returning to the worksite.

One big challenge is coordinating work schedules with school schedules. If school buildings are closed, Cuttino noted, it's difficult for working parents to return to the office. Another challenge is overcoming employees' fears about returning to the worksite. Diminish those fears by emphasizing that the employer is following local and national guidelines, she recommended.

"We are still in the midst of a global pandemic," Abrams observed. "Employers should continue to follow public health guidelines, including social distancing, maintaining cleanliness and other measures," he said.

Some career fields, such as customer service and IT positions, may continue to lend themselves to remote work, Welch said.

Moreover, Weiss said over 70 percent of employees want more-flexible work arrangements in the future.

Nonetheless, Cuttino said many "underestimated the impact of seeing people in the workplace. For many, it's become a real issue."

CDC Guidance

Taylor Johnson, an attorney with Keller and Heckman in Washington, D.C., noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance for employers seeking to re-establish in-person business operations.

The guidance has many considerations for employers before returning employees to the worksite, including modifying seats, furniture and workstations to maintain social distancing of 6 feet between employees, where possible.

"Sixty-four percent of salaried U.S. employees are working from home right now, and while things like remote work and flexible schedules have allowed many businesses to continue operating, coming back into the office won't be as easy as flipping a switch," Taylor said. "Things you might not even think about will need to be addressed. SHRM is here to help you navigate COVID-19 with tools and resources to tackle your back-to-work challenges and shape what the future of work will look like." 

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