January 11, 2022

Throughout last year, many of us hoped 2022 would bring a bit of normalcy back to our lives. Companies from BlackRock to Brooks Brothers announced return-to-office plans and parents let out sighs of relief at the thought of their kids learning in a classroom instead of a Zoom call. Then the omicron variant quickly swept the globe and brought about a new surge in cases, putting a damper on both the holiday season and our collective optimism at the outset of a new year.

As a result of the surge, organizations are holding off on their plans and asking employees to continue working from home. Vaccinated workers are catching breakthrough Covid infections, keeping them out of the workplace and slowing momentum for many industries. Major companies like Uber and Google have abandoned their return-to-office target dates altogether.

With the potential for new variants and ongoing outbreaks, will a full return to the office ever be a reasonable goal?

An Intentional Approach

Given the collective impact of our pandemic experience, it’s unlikely that we’ll return to normal as defined by our former standards. Hybrid work is now widespread, forcing companies not only to reconsider how their spaces are being used, but also how to give their employees the best available tools, services and amenities, regardless of where they’re working.

If organizations keep changing or canceling their return-to-office plans repeatedly out of Covid-induced necessity, will we reach a point where both employers and employees broadly agree that a full return is unlikely? Most companies have already embraced some version of hybrid work, and certainly a portion of the workforce would prefer to stay remote full-time, especially if we’re facing an uncertain future with ongoing outbreaks and associated concerns around school closures and short-notice childcare.

Most workers want to split their working time between home and the office, and if Covid (hopefully) subsides, it’s likely people will spend time in the workplace for both the social aspect and the ability to network and advance their careers. Especially for younger workers entering the workforce in this strange time of transition, making in-person connections and building relationships with colleagues is crucial. Companies have to be deliberate and intentional about their workplace cultures not only to keep their best people, but also foster a sense of connection after two years of relative separation.

A Massive Shift

Post-pandemic, savvy companies will continue to emphasize flexibility and well-being, especially if workers keep up their demands for more options, better working conditions and increased compensationBut as the latest jobs report shows a market beset by ongoing quits and reduced hires, it’s becoming clear that remote work has gone from an impromptu solution to a mainstay of office work. The Covid era has kept doubt and disruption front of mind for everyone, and people are pushing back against negative forces in their professional lives. A two-year experiment in the efficacy of working from home has showed us what’s possible. According to recent ZipRecruiter data, remote jobs got 300 percent more applicants than other available roles. Hospital administration listings allowing for remote work saw a 92 percent uptick in resume submissions—human resource job applications rose by 70 percent. The Ladders reported that now nearly 20 percent of all professional jobs are remote, up from nine percent last year and four percent before the pandemic. This is projected to increase to 25 percent by the end of the year.

This is a massive shift in how we organize our working lives, the largest since World War II experts say. Companies still dying on the hill of mandatory in-office work will ultimately have to acquiesce not only to the uncertainty of the virus, but also their employees' demands for better work-life balance. Employers offering office access for collaborative work coupled with comprehensive productivity tools and the ability to work from anywhere will be better off, as they’ll have a compelling reason to lure workers back to their spaces. But unless opportunities to connect and collaborate with colleagues are intentional and purposeful, workers will have little incentive to seek out a traditional office environment.

We know workplace relationships are crucial. While remote work didn’t stifle collaboration altogether, it changed our approach to it and restricted the flow of communication and interaction. Some form of office-based work is likely necessary to improve team cohesion and effectiveness, especially when tackling complex tasks. Per a report from Gallup, “Leaders must create a compelling environment that gives employees a reason to return to their workplace and sells them on the benefits of being together in a shared physical space.”

Here’s hoping companies take this recommendation seriously.