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Will We Ever See a Widespread Return to Office?


Image: Nuthawut -
With news breaking last week on the spread of the Omicron variant, a new and potentially more transmissible iteration of the COVID-19 virus, many of us can't help but sigh heavily and think: Here we go again.
If Omicron does become a global health concern, this would mark the third time that an iteration of the COVID-19 virus has disrupted how workplace leaders had planned to transition their workforce out of or back to corporate offices. While it’s too soon to assess the precise impact Omicron will have on how we work (if at all), it’s possible we might see companies pushing back their return-to-office plans further or scrapping plans before rising Omicron-variant infections force the issue.
Even before Omicron started making headlines — and as the Delta variant remains the dominant variant throughout parts of the U.S. — many workplaces were already revisiting their return-to-office plans. For instance, Apple announced that it will push back its return to office date to February 2022. However, not everyone agreed with next February being the month people could return to the office. In an MSNBC video interview, Dr. Vin Gupta, faculty member for the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, shared his thoughts on Apple’s decision, stating that February might be too soon. "I would not advocate any private sector company [or] public sector company to return to the office in the depth of the winter," Gupta said, "April first at the earliest ... frankly late spring is going to be the better strategy.”
Apple isn’t the only company that has put its plans on hold (Microsoft is postponing return-to-office plans indefinitely) or rethinking its return-to-office strategy (Amazon allowing teams to decide how and where they work). A recent Gallup report of full-time employees found that 45% of over 4,000 employees either worked partially or fully remote in the month of September 2021 (20% partially remote, and 25% fully remote), with the percentage higher for white-collar workers and less for frontline workers. These numbers also track July and August, indicating that return-to-office plans overall have been placed on hold, Gallup added.
If spring 2022 does pan out as Gupta suggests, that would mean a significant portion of the U.S. white-collar population has spent more than two years working from home. Given this time away from the office, many workers have now completely adjusted to working independently of a fixed office space, and moving back into the office in any capacity brings with it its own set of problems.
Some workplace strategists have also voiced concerns about how the return to the office could create anxiety and unease for employees. A report by management consulting firm McKinsey found that one-third of surveyed employees who returned to the office experienced a negative impact on their mental health, with almost half of those who haven’t returned anticipating negative mental health impacts. Couple this data with the Great Resignation and a record level of work burnout, and returning to the office might become a bigger hassle than it's worth — at least for the near-to-middle term.
Other workplace strategists argue that returning to the office can be done with a proper workforce strategy. For instance, a recent Harvard Business Review article, titled “Don’t Let Returning to the Office Burn Out Your Team,” the author outlined ways to combat return-to-office anxiety through creating spaces for deep work, establishing team rituals, and more. While acknowledging the record-level of employee burnout, the author argues there are ways to create safe and productive ways to return to the office.
Even if workplaces can return their employees safely (physically and mentally) to offices, it doesn’t discount the real attitude changes many employees feel about in-office and remote working; the Great Resignation is one proof point. If the pandemic stretches into a third year, many more workplaces might feel pressured — either by the pandemic, the job market, or their employees — to throw their arms up in the air and say, "fine, work wherever." If that does become the case, we might have to wait many years for any semblance of a pre-COVID working style to emerge once again on a widespread scale.