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After A Year Of Working From Home, The COVID Office Shakeup Is Just Getting Started

Welcome back. Offices and office policy will be weird once workers return en masse post-coronavirus.

Over the last year, workers have heard the constant refrain: Adaptation is everything. The unprecedented workplace situations and scenarios unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic have accelerated remote work, emptied out traditional offices and even led many workers to relocate. 

But talk to talent professionals about the process not of moving out but moving back into offices, and it’s clear that few companies have leadership teams or human resources divisions that have grappled with the change that is yet to come.

As much as COVID-19 has shaken up corporate operations, the post-pandemic landscape — where the lessons about efficiency, process, workplace rules and real estate footprints get fully applied — may lead to many difficult conversations, especially with a coterie of workers impatient for a return to their old workplaces and some sense of normalcy. 

“That conversation isn’t happening enough,” said Matt Abbott, head of recruiting services at talent firm The Sourcery. “The next level is some want to get back into the office, but I still see multiple steps in front of that. Companies struggle with internal communication and don’t want to deliver news that could cause upheaval.” 

Weeks of positive vaccine news, especially a general acceleration of distribution, despite many widespread and long-standing operational challenges, have only highlighted a general sense that a return to a new normal is, if not imminent, then at least forthcoming. 

A monthly office demand survey by CRE leasing software firm VTS found that while demand for office space isn’t exactly skyrocketing back in anticipation of a return to work — demand rose 21% between December and this past January, in line with historical trends and still down 60% from January 2020 — at least it is now no longer correlated with COVID-19 cases.

Now, the analysis suggested, employers are starting to look at near- and long-term factors, such as job growth, expected vaccine distribution, the return of public amenities and potential in-office safety measures.

Joe Du Bey, CEO and co-founder of Eden Workplace, which sells software to help organize and manage office spaces, said his firm also found a spike in interest, with new sales doubling month-to-month from January to February, indicating firms are planning for a return.

“There are plenty of people clamoring to get back to the office,” Abbott said. “They see productivity gains and social interaction. They just may have felt like pariahs saying it out loud before.” 

The empty office floor at Pinnacle Structural Engineers in Houston.

Plotting for a return to the office brings so many steps: setting up security and safety protocols, figuring out vaccinations and if they will be mandated for working in offices, and how remote work and relocated workers may fit into a post-pandemic corporate operational structure.

“It’s not as easy as people saying, ‘It’s clean, now let’s go,’” Abbott said.

He said he expects entire industries will be created around operating coronavirus-safe offices that incorporate social distancing and increased safety while also better incorporating remote workers into on-site meetings and events.

Du Bey said that during webinars where workplace managers discuss how they’ll use Eden’s workplace software, many are talking about setting up A-B days, where different teams alternate when they’re in the office, and setting up hub-and-spoke models for office space. Nobody thinks they can enforce a “five-day-a-week, in-your-seat-at-9 a.m.” schedule anymore without risking significant attrition, he said. 

“Let’s assume we get the answers that we’re hoping for and the vaccine does prevent transmission, that can facilitate people coming back to the office,” said Columbia University assistant professor Laura Boudreau, who specializes in working conditions and productivity. “That means there will need to be accommodations for those who for health or religious reasons can’t get vaccinated, and there may be those who don’t want to get vaccinated. There’s also the issue of child care access for working parents, which will be huge.”

Abbott said he foresees many of these issues truly coming to a head in Q3 this year, a period of “upheaval.” CFOs, stuck justifying real estate with long leases, will argue that unless it’s provable the company is more efficient without this space, offices need to be used. There will also be a misalignment among those who want to stay at home and those who want to return, he said.

One of the true challenges will be the newly remote workforce. What if many team members want to work from home most if not all of the week? There’s also the problem with relocated employees.

“They don’t tend to be the entry-level employees,” Abbott said.

Any hard-and-fast policy will need to apply across the firm, which could lead to attrition for more senior, experienced or in-demand employees.

December survey by Gartner of 130 HR leaders found that 90% plan to allow employees to work remotely at least part-time, and 65% of companies will offer employees flexibility of where they work. Half of these leaders predict roughly half of their workforce will want to return to the office. 

Boudreau said she agreed that it will be very hard to force workers comfortable with remote existence back into the office. She said she sees the return to the office marked by a long period of transition, when corporations work out all these policies and also consider what their real estate footprints and spatial needs will be in the future. 

“There’s definitely a lot of hesitancy to make longer-term decisions,” she said, “We’ve been working from home for a year, and some love it, some hate it and some have just been so busy juggling things they can’t get a sense of what they really prefer. Once people have options again without the stress of the pandemic, it’s smart to allow for a gradual transition to happen.” 

“A lot of humility has been beaten into people by the pandemic,” Du Bey said.