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Is Now the Time for Piloting a Return to Office?


Image: Prostock-studio -
News about the pandemic and the return to work has been mixed recently. The U.S. seems to finally be on an upward path, consistently hitting two million vaccinations per day and securing the purchase of enough doses to vaccinate the entire country. It’s starting to look like we might actually get out of this thing in 2021.
But corporate leaders remain divided. On Cisco’s quarterly earnings call this week, CEO Chuck Robbins said his employees are tired of working from home and want to get back into the office, and though coverage of these comments left the impression that Robbins is gung-ho for a return to the office, his actual statements and actions are much more nuanced, and in line with conventional wisdom. Robbins suggested that the future is a hybrid of remote and office-based work, and Cisco’s plans don’t envision a return to office until mid-summer.
Similarly, Salesforce — which has a very new, very large office building in San Francisco to fill up with employees — rolled out “Work From Anywhere” guidelines, though President and Chief People Officer Brent Hyder wrote in a blog post, “The majority of our employees will go back to the office at least some of the time. And we’ve learned that 80% of our employees are hungry for the connection, camaraderie and innovation that come from gathering in-person.”
And so, to paraphrase David Byrne of Talking Heads, you may ask yourself, “Well, how do we work this?”
The answer to this question, of course, is that it depends on the enterprise. But it seems to me that over the next few months, enterprise facilities and HR teams have a unique opportunity to use a phased-in return-to-office period as a time to pilot test different approaches — both in terms of policy and space utilization — to get some hard data or at least informed opinions about what the next, presumably hybrid, version of work should look like.
Piloting different approaches to the office isn’t a new idea. Companies such as Zurich N.A. did it when they built new office spaces pre-pandemic. And this recent blog post from the design firm Gensler describes how one of its clients, Armstrong World Industries, is embarked on such a pilot now.
IT and AV teams even have a role in these pilots. Enterprises are still guessing about how technology will be used in the office: Will employees want bigger conference rooms? Will the idea of small “huddle spaces” — the hottest office trend pre-pandemic — be completely forsaken, or will vaccinated employees see no issue with smaller spaces that may be enabled with videoconferencing technology for collaboration with colleagues who remain remote?
In other words, the task for now might not be for enterprises to decide what the future looks like, but to experiment with different options and postpone longer-term initiatives until they can make more informed decisions about the best choices.