The COVID pandemic prompted a hasty retreat to a fully remote work environment for many companies in spring 2020. They began talking about a return to work in summer 2020, even before a vaccine was available. That timetable has been slipping ever since: from Labor Day 2020, to the beginning of 2021, to midsummer 2021 and now Labor Day 2021. But it seems like at least one more delay lies ahead, thanks to the Delta variant.
Many companies are pushing their much-delayed return to the office date back again by a month or more. According to George Penn, a vice president in Gartner’s HR practice, these decisions could be an intelligent approach if they’re based on government policy and guidance, local transmission data, and, most importantly, employee feedback. He says organizations that change their pandemic-era work policies will have to weigh whether any short-term disruptions outweigh what he considers “long-term destruction,” which can erode employee trust and potentially company culture.
Tech Leads the Way
Tech companies, as usual, have been at the forefront, with Apple, Google, Microsoft and others postponing their return to office dates anywhere from a month to well into 2022 or even indefinitely.
Tech workers, of course, work adroitly with collaboration and project management technologies that make remote work viable in the first place. Moreover, for many roles, most of the workday is spent on individual contributor projects. Arguably, the ability to work in an environment of one’s choice contributes more to these workers’ creativity and productivity than the fabled water cooler brainstorms.
This trend is hardly limited to tech companies. Leading companies, from Coca-Cola to Wells Fargo, DocuSign and Indeed, have delayed their return anywhere from a month to an undetermined date in the future.
In addition, some companies like Indeed had already planned to move to a hybrid work model and have opted to accelerate those plans. Others, like Dropbox, are making a more permanent shift to remote work. “We’ve adopted a virtual-first model, and for us, that means individual work happens from home,” Dropbox Chief Executive Officer Drew Houston said in an interview on Bloomberg TV. “We’ve turned our offices into collaborative convening spaces.”
Not all Companies are Onboard
More traditional cultures, like Wall Street, have resisted further delays in returning to the workplace and have already brought many of their workers back to the office—often with stepped-up efforts to fight the virus, such as vaccine mandates or incentives, mask policies, distancing and more.
And even some tech companies like Google view the delay as more of a temporary necessity than a permanent transformation. So to lure employees back to the office in the future, the company has extensively redesigned its California headquarters to feel more like home than a traditional office space. To accompany that carrot, the company recently unveiled a stick: a pay calculator that could slash employees’ salaries who continue to work from home, particularly if they’re living far from the office.
Employees are in No Hurry to Return to the Office
For employees, a resurgent virus with breakthrough infections and renewed requirements for masks and social distancing make a return to the office (and a public transportation commute) even less appealing than it might have already been. As a result, some employees who were resigned to the return are now having second thoughts. Others are uninterested in ever returning to a 40-hour office routine.
For workers whose companies have already pushed the return to office timetable back to early 2022, they will have been out of the office for two full years. It’s fair to ask whether these employees will ever be prepared to return to the office. The longer this distributed workforce experiment continues, and the more successful employees believe it to be, the less likely they’ll want to turn back the clock, no matter how homey the office setup might be.