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Top Considerations for Return to Office and Future of Work

Jaime Klein | JUN 30, 2021

It’s been well over a year since the world came to a screeching halt due to the COVID-19 outbreak—throwing HR and business leaders into months of reactive mode. Now, with the CDC reporting that more than half of people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of the vaccine, we’re all thinking about what comes next. And this time, we’re shifting from reactive to proactive. 

Every leader is still figuring this out. According to McKinsey, 68% of companies do not have concrete plans in place yet and only about 28% of office-workers are back in the office today. Many companies are delaying mandating in-person attendance as they continue to debate the pros and cons of maintaining a remote model, introducing a hybrid solution, and how to decide between the two. I have heard from several CEOs and HR leaders who are trying a phased approach where phase one is encouraging people to come in and try the new office environment, working progressively toward a date (many are targeting September) by which everyone will have to be in for a minimum number of days each week.   

The New York Times is reopening, but allowing employees to work from home two days per week. The Saks office is opening fully, requiring vaccines to mitigate the spread of infection. And Spotify, Twitter and others are making work-from-anywhere their permanent policy. 

Other leaders, most notably Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase, James Gorman of Morgan Stanley, and Sandeep Mathrani of WeWork, want to prioritize the in-office environment and the team members who report in-person each day, who they see as the most committed and engaged. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos has softened his push for RTO in the face of strong criticism from Amazon employees.

As we know, there is no “return to normal.” But, there also isn’t a playbook for next steps following a more-than-year-long global pandemic, mandated shutdowns and quarantines, childcare crises, and reckoning over racial injustice converging all at once, either.  We encourage all leaders to consider these top four factors when determining next steps for return to office planning and the future of work: 

Recognize the gap between leaders and employees

Many Gen X colleagues are looking forward to getting back into the office, drawing inspiration from their sleek offices, and feeling accomplishment walking out of the building each night. For many of us, work is a huge part of our identity and a source of self-worth. It’s something we’re incredibly proud of and a place from which we draw energy. 

It can be easy to assume our colleagues feel the same. Plus, haven’t millennials and Gen Z team members missed the social aspects of work more than any of us?

Not necessarily. 

Earlier this month, Apple employees sent a joint letter to CEO Tim Cook in response to the tech company’s push for RTO that states: 

“Over the last year we often felt not just unheard, but at times actively ignored. Messages like, ‘we know many of you are eager to reconnect in person with your colleagues back in the office,’ with no messaging acknowledging that there are directly contradictory feelings amongst us feels dismissive and invalidating…It feels like there is a disconnect between how the executive team thinks about remote / location-flexible work and the lived experiences of many of Apple’s employees.”

According to Bloomberg, 39% of workers will quit if they are not offered flexibility around remote working, and the number jumps to 49% among millennials and Gen Z. Plus, younger colleagues see leaders’ push for RTO as an indication of a paternalistic view of supervision and oversight. 

Leaders have to recognize that their team members are not necessarily skipping back into the office and eager to dust-off their corporate spaces, just because the C-Suite can’t wait. They may see saving time and money on commutes, a relaxed wardrobe, more time at home, or better integration of their work and personal lives as something worth holding onto tightly. 

Lead inclusively

When the pandemic began, we often heard things such as, “we’re all in the same boat.” It didn’t take long, however, to realize that actually, in this unprecedented storm, some were riding it out in stable yachts, while others clung to life rafts. 

Women of color were hit especially hard by the pandemic—representing a disproportionate percentage of front-line and essential workers, being primary caregivers at home, and almost three times more likely than a white person to be hospitalized with COVID-19. Plus, data collected by the Center for American Progress shows that 67% of Black women and 41% of Latina women are the sole breadwinners for their families. 

In a survey by PEW Research, 57% of mothers report work has gotten harder during the pandemic compared to 47% of fathers, and 34% of mothers and 26% of fathers have had to reduce their work hours.  

What does this mean for leaders and RTO planning?

It means that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s more critical than ever to appreciate the intersectional identities of team members while encouraging them to bring their whole selves to work. Flexibility will remain key moving forward. The best leaders are actively listening to their team members’ needs and incorporating feedback into plans.  

Break through the polarization

Vaccines, distancing mandates, and the virus itself have all become political topics which can create conflict as coworkers begin to share space again. This doesn’t mean we have to succumb to political debates in the hallway, though. As I mentioned leading up to the presidential election, leaders can validate feelings and create safe spaces to hear fears and frustrations without promoting political opinions. 

I recently spoke with the CEO of a financial services company who said he has a laminated copy of his vaccination card right with his keycard and id badge. For those who are comfortable sharing in this way, they minimize the awkward conversation or assumptions that happen when riding in the elevator with someone, joining a conference room meeting, or holding the door for another person. As CEO, he is setting a powerful example that could diffuse confrontation.  

But of course, it’s impossible to remove any possibility of confrontation. If an employee is trying to force their views onto other employees, or otherwise disrupting the workplace, treat this behavior as you would other forms of harassment or unprofessional behavior. 

As HR and business leaders, it is not our job to choose sides in the vaccine debate. Rather, we need to recognize heightened mental health concerns, anxiety, and stress on either side of the aisle. Then, we set objective policies geared toward maximizing workplace safety. Clear policies around vaccination, quarantine protocols, and use of common spaces are absolutely necessary to ensure fair treatment. 

Upskill managers

Hybrid management likely wasn’t a course in your LMS in 2019, and it wasn’t part of an MBA curriculum, either. But, remote work has been around for a while, primarily in the tech sector, and there are tools to make it work well. Look how much we’ve learned about Zoom and Slack! Now, it’s time to match up the tech tools with the soft skills managers need to make the shift from crisis-mode to the future of work. 

The Future of Work Study 2021” by Accenture indicates that 83% of workers prefer a hybrid model and encourages managers to think less about where people should work, and instead should ask “What unleashes a person’s potential, enabling them to be healthy and productive, regardless of where they work?”

This mentality means equipping managers to more effectively communicate, to address mental health challenges, lead with a human-centric mindset, set clear expectations for performance measurement and behavior, and establish clear protocols for the team around collaboration. 

Making new models to support employee success now isn’t just a question of returning to work, but remodeling and reimagining the future of work. And considering the 85% of people who feel they have the tools to be productive anywhere who will stay at their job for a long time, the stakes are too high to sit back and hope our managers can adapt as they go.