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Will We Ever Return to The Office?

Written by Mukul Chopra

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July 22, 2020

While we await a vaccine that will finally put this Covid-19 nightmare behind us, we are simultaneously thinking of how we will live with the virus until then. How will kids learn? How will we travel? Will we vacation this summer? And yes, how will work look beyond the current remote work options?

McKinsey did a recent survey of employers and 80% expect to see many of their employees back in the office later in 2020.

There are three basic variants of the return that are being planned:

Stay where you are

Many companies, particularly in the tech sector, where workers are comfortable with remote work and are technically well equipped, have decided to postpone any move back to the office. These include Google, Amazon, PayPal, Zillow, Slack, Salesforce, SAS, etc. Others, like JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, and Capital One have also decided to stay as-is for now.

The primary drivers here are that productivity and work do not seem to have been adversely affected to a point that changes need to be made while the virus still ravages the world. In fact, only 13% of business leaders voiced concern about sustaining productivity.

Come back to the workplace

Many companies, however, have no choice but to have their employees back. These include those in the service, hospitality, and manufacturing sectors. Many of these companies have struggled mightily, but they have no other option since these establishments are labor-intensive and this type of work cannot be done remotely.

Companies are adjusting to the new and changing guidelines on workplace safety. Unfortunately, the federal guidelines from the CDC, have sometimes been confusing and contradictory.

To make the point, the following is likely to create more confusion than clarity and comes from the CDC guidelines:

Employers should not require a COVID-19 test result or a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick to validate their illness, qualify for sick leave, or to return to work.

It has been left to the states to create their own guidelines e.g. Virginia. The danger here is that states will each come up with their own guidelines, just as they have done for masks, thus creating a complicated mosaic that will create a lot of implementation problems, particularly for the large employers who have locations in multiple states.

Prior to the pandemic, the trend was to have open office spaces with employees stationed close to each other in cubicles. Today, this is a huge problem in the era of social distancing. In many cases, unless a new space can be procured, this situation does not allow all the employees to come back to work at the same time, thus forcing a hybrid approach (discussed later).

Health checks before employees enter the office, seem likely to become mandatory. However, the big issue with the virus is that one can be asymptomatic and infectious, both at the same time. In some geographies, if you are tested for the virus, you may have to wait for up to 11 days before you get a result, thus making contact tracing, etc. almost impossible. And unless one self-quarantines – which not everyone complies within this ‘honor system’ approach – you can be spreading the disease amongst your colleagues at work, even as you await results.

The option to stay home, particularly if you are in a vulnerable population, or looking after a family member who may be in such a group, is not afforded universally by all employers. Thus, the choice for the employee can become one of several bad options: work, no matter what; find another job that has better remote options; or stay home without a job. All choices that are less than optimal to control spread or survive in this new normal.

There is also a legal component where employers can be potentially liable for the illness of employees and the spread of the disease, particularly if they force them back into the office. Currently, this is top of mind in the Senate, but no progress on liability protection legislation is assured.

Going forward, Gartner reports that 94% of employers intend to limit face-to-face meetings, and 91% will intend to provide PPE for returning employees. Apparently, the run on PPE has only just begun.

Hybrid approach – with time in the office, and some time spent remote

Recent surveys, by both PwC and Gartner, seem to suggest that the most likely scenario going forward is a hybrid approach, where there is a mix of both remote work and time spent in the office. The success of the remote experiment forced upon us due to Covid-19 is also reflected in considerations for making some remote work a permanent part of the new work regimen.

According to PwC, the number of CFOs considering making remote work permanent, or at least keep it in place for six months, is 85%.

The Gartner survey, shown below, is interesting for the following insights:

  • Almost half of those surveyed (47%) are now considering allowing employees to work remote permanently.
  • 30% of leaders believe the big challenge going forward will be trying to establish and maintain corporate culture in this hybrid environment.
  • 61% have instituted a more frequent manager-employee check in

In fact, as Gartner’s VP Advisory Practice Elisabeth Joyce succinctly summarized: “The new question facing most organizations is not how to manage a remote workforce, but how to manage a more complex hybrid workforce.”

I could not agree more.

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