Back to the Office? Or Not?

We are now 19+ months from early March 2020 when our world changed. We had heard about a virus abroad and its impact, but it sounded Ebola-like to us. Something that far away that wouldn’t really affect us Americans, would it? You know the answer.

For most of us, Thursday March 12, 2020 and Friday March, 13 2020 were the days we went home and stayed there. The Coronavirus had reached our country and was a threat to the health of all of us, particularly seniors in nursing homes.

Businesses scrambled to continue to operate remotely. Retail closed and then found ways to enhance pick-up & delivery. We initially thought we would be returning to work in April. Our former President was chatting up Easter as the target date for family gatherings, Church and a return to normal, despite the fact that he knew better. And here we are 19+ months later finally re-emerging. We’re now emerging from what we all hope is the last aggressive phase of COVID. However, we do know is that it will not “go away” though it will be far less omnipresent and deadly.

So businesses are slowly returning to the workplace or making plans to do so soon.

However, one thing the past 19+months has demonstrated is that, depending on the nature of the business, that many businesses can survive remotely. And some intend to do so. Obviously in-person retail, health care, etc. needs face-to-face interaction, but professional services, for example, are less dependent on in-office work, hence the birth of the remote workplace.

Truth is that there was a trend toward more flexible, remote work pre-COVID, but COVID has changed the WFH equation forever.

The question that every business faces is whether they want their workers to return, and if so under what guidelines. Things under consideration are:

1.Vaccine mandates—some companies have mandates, others not. (I am a strong proponent of mandates). But businesses have to weigh the return to the office for non-vaccinated employees. And if they chose to ask their non vaccinated employees to stay home while still working, are they “rewarding” non vaccination, hardly the message one seeks to send.

2. Communication & Collaboration It is clear now that many professional services firms can operate remotely, but is it ideal? The problem firms have had is that a large and increasing % of the workforce started in the COVID era and may have never met their co-workers. Beyond that, physical interaction sometimes solves problems quickly. The formality of setting a zoom meeting to talk or sending an email, rather than the old analog stopping by someone’s cube and saying, “I need your help. I don’t understand x and y”. People work with people and problems get solved before they become real problems. Lessened collaboration is surely a victim of remote work.

3. Commutation—Workers who have spent considerable time and $ commuting to work are understandably far less interested in resuming the former commutation nightmare, so it may be VERY hard to force a workforce to return to the 5 day a week in-office.

4. Staff feelings—How much will staff want to return, and how often? In today’s unstable employment world (Talent Free-for-all), forcing staff behavior can yield greater staff turnover.

The reality is that the workplace has changed. I know some businesses are saying they won’t return to a workplace ever. I actually think that’s a mistake. There’s a big gap between total WFH and balanced WFH/workplace days. Culture, collaboration, and communication inevitably suffer with no physical interaction. On the other hand, the 5-day per week workplace will likely not return. Expect FAR more flexibility and 2-3 day in office requirements, more longer distance staff, and a shorter work week–4 days?)

COVID may have accelerated WFH but it already was heading in that direction. The key for employers is to set the tone on what’s reasonable and appropriate based on their unique situation.

But there’s merit in face-to-face, and the price we’ve paid in business and life of no physical interaction has a cost as well.

One thing is certain, change is the status quo.

More Strumings

One Comment

  1. Change is the status quo. Great insights and an excellent way to sum up these these thoughts!

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