Is It Time to Return to the Office?


Many HR leaders are wondering if they should put their return-to-office plans back in motion because COVID-19 positivity rates and hospitalizations are rapidly declining in many parts of the United States and elsewhere. However, many remain cautious because they experienced this push earlier in the pandemic only to have their plans undone.

Both the Delta and Omicron variants caused surges in cases that sent everyone back to remote work. While many have accepted a hybrid work plan, they are beginning to fully open workplaces for the first time in two years. Human Resources finds itself caught in the middle between workers, who want greater flexibility and prefer working from home, and executives who want people to return to the office.

The Great Divide
Many workers have grown accustomed to working from home and never want to return to the office. Six in 10 U.S. workers, who say their jobs can be done from home, have WFH schedules all or most of the time, according to the Pew Research Center. Among those who have a workplace outside the home, 61% said they are opting out of the office by choice.

A whopping 76% said “it’s simply their preference” to work from home. In addition, Gallup found that three in 10 employees said they are extremely likely to find another job if their current company eliminates remote work.

With a historic labor shortage caused by the Great Resignation, some HR leaders feel like they should accommodate those who want to work from home. But some executives prefer returning to the office, even full time. They say productivity and performance are hard to measure from afar.

In fact, 23% of respondents to the HR Exchange Network’s latest State of HR Report said that productivity monitoring was the biggest challenge of remote work. Employee engagement tied it for first place among the problems of having WFH employees.

Still, 56% of the HR professionals who responded to HR Exchange Network said they are keeping the hybrid workplace post-pandemic. Also, 38% said providing greater flexibility and autonomy were priorities to improving work culture.

DEI and Return-to-Office Policies
The Future Forum released a global study in 2021 that revealed a great disconnect between those who want to return to the office and those who are working from home. Executives were three times more likely than employees to prefer being in the office full time. FiveThirtyEight delved into these responses and found that white men were the ones most comfortable with returning to the office.

This divide raises challenges for HR leaders who are promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at their workplace. U.S. offices, as FiveThirtyEight points out, are reflective of traditions and norms that benefitted white men over everyone else. In addition, those marginalized groups that prefer working from home have expressed that beyond being more convenient, it levels the playing field in a way. It is easier to avoid microaggressions, racism, and sexism when people are communicating on recorded videoconferences and over email and chatting platforms, according to the article. FiveThirtyEight issued a warning to Human Resources:

“If there are disparities in who opts in (or out) of in-person work, physical offices run the risk of becoming whiter, more male-dominated, and more unfriendly to working mothers than they were before the pandemic,” according to the article.

Real World Examples of WFH vs. In-Office Plans
Companies are starting to make decisions. At Spotify, 60% of employees want to return to the office, said Preeti Singh, Global HR Lead of Content and Advertising in the Business Unit, at the HR and Future of Work online event. She stressed that the organization is offering a number of choices that allow great flexibility and a mix of in-person and remote working. Also, Spotify is focusing on ensuring those who work from home, work from anywhere, and return to the office all feel included regardless of their choice, said Singh.

Microsoft announced that starting from February 28, its employees in Washington state will have 30 days “to make adjustments to their routines and adopt the working preferences they’ve agreed upon with their managers.”

While this message leaves open the possibility of hybrid or even all-remote work, the blog post went on to mention that the high vaccination rate and dropping number of COVID-19 cases in the area, allows the company to “fully open our facilities to employees, visitors, and guests.”

NPR recently reported that Social Security customer service and Ford corporate were returning to their respective offices, while Wells Fargo is planning a flexible hybrid model, with most employees returning for three days per week. This is consistent with HR Exchange Network findings. Only 8% of respondents to State of HR said they would be working remotely full time.

Government is weighing in, too. New York City Mayor Eric Adams met with 100 CEOs to try and convince them to return to offices to boost the city’s economy.

“Let’s start out with a three-day workweek to let people see how safe it is to come back to work, then we cycle back into a five-day week,” Adams said, according to Forbes. “Now is the time for us to get back. I’m hoping within the next few weeks the CEOs map out a real plan of ‘this is when you need to come back.'”

What’s Next?
Human resources leaders have different priorities and constituents than Adams. Whatever plans they make will have to balance the needs of executives and workers. A kinder, gentler workplace also means considering who’s a caretaker in addition to working full time, who has psychological needs that require going out into the world sometimes, and who might just be better suited for one option over the other.

Of course, the decision makers will be taking into consideration what work arrangement will best help the company achieve its goals and have positive business outcomes. Most companies will find there is no one-size-fits-all answer about whether to permit working from home or requiring some level of in-office work. The next variant could be around the corner, so companies will have to adjust swiftly when necessary. Regardless, HR leaders will have to weigh the options, consider the consequences, experiment, and adjust accordingly.


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