The return to the office: what does it look like now?

return to the office

Is this "the" return to the office? Companies within industries from publishing to finance are in the middle of returning to the office. Some are months into in-person work while others are meeting resistance to a five-day work week post-pandemic. The return to the office that workers, managers, and company owners anticipated at the start of the pandemic looks less like a wave of workers filling seats in empty offices and more like a shift into different work arrangements, including long-term remote, in-person, and hybrid. 

With a wide variety of approaches to the office return – and road bumps in many of them – this post is here to help you make sense of it all. Whether you’re an employee in the throes of transitioning back to the office or you’re a leader with a stack of protocols in front of you, dive into what has – and hasn’t – worked for other companies. Take a pulse on what returning to the office looks like so you can make better decisions about your own employment or how to lead a team through a WFH to office transition. Whether you’re in the middle of planning or execution, this post provides context for where office work stands more than two years on from the start of the pandemic. 

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Is this the return to the office?

When companies transitioned from home offices to working from home at the start of the pandemic, many leaders saw it as a temporary solution. The prevailing thinking was that at some point, employees would return. Articles from late 2020 stoked this idea. Small surveys, like that of 1,200 workers that found only 16% of them were thriving at home, also pointed out the flaws in a full-time work-from-home arrangement. These sentiments provided an arrow in a direction at the time, but now seem to be tied in with the unique circumstances of living in 2020. After a year of the pandemic, depression rates soared. Even those spared from the worst depression may have experienced pandemic fatigue as the alterations on everyday life remained for the most part, in effect. 

Cut to almost four months into 2022, and in many respects, life looks different from the same time in 2020. Many people changed jobs, houses, and even cities – all around this new normal of remote work and consistent delays in returning to the office. Many have or are in the process of soft-launching themselves into society – especially after the Delta and Omicron variants put a squash on post-vaccination hopes for normality. Employees are different from who they were at the start of the pandemic, and this means the return to the office envisioned at that time is different, too. Leaders should take note. 

Return to office plans

The big question for company leaders now is not “How do we return to the office?” but “How do we return to the office with more than two years of routine centered around working from home?” The logical follow-up questions include “Is now the best time to go back to the office?” and “Should we go hybrid or in-person for our return.” The answers to these follow-up questions vary depending on location and even office culture. Whatever you decide in terms of timing and hybrid versus in-person, there are a few aspects to consider when creating or reworking your return to office plans. Each of these considerations is taken from the experience of different firms over the last several months. 

Understand not everyone will be on board

Wall Street was keen to return to the office on the premise that trading and client-facing account advising were better done in-person. J.P. Morgan Chase was one of those firms, and garnered attention for the CEO’s hard-line position on bringing employees back to the office. For J.P. Morgan Chase and other firms, empty office space in high-priced New York City meant pressure to make the most of the real estate. 

The only problem was not everyone was keen to return to a full five days in the office. There was enough resistance that the CEO reversed a decision to mandate in-office presence five days a week. 

There’s no working scenario that achieves 100% buy-in from employees, but from J.P. Morgan Chase’s experience, leaders and even team members should understand that accommodations may need to be made. This may look like reversing a policy, but it could also look like building more time into the transition period.

Open up communication

In absence of, or addition to, making huge changes to the return to the office plan, leaders should offer open and honest communication. Bloomberg reported that in a recent survey, three-fourths of executives expressed they were very open in communication while less than half of employees shared the same sentiment. Leaders can start with a clear explanation of why the return is happening in the first place. Employees are wise to the fact that companies act in the company’s best interest, so sugarcoating the reasons for returning with statements around how “people work better in-person” or “collaboration is better in-person” might not be enough. Be honest, or as honest as you can, about why it’s important to return to the office. Microsoft took a data-driven approach to show how they were carefully planning and preparing for a return to their headquarters.

By the same token, make policies around COVID-19 clear and reasonable. If one of the biggest reasons an office stayed closed was to protect employee health and slow transmission, the return to office policies should also take a strong stance on what to do in order to protect employee health. Even as the pandemic inches close to an endemic, many employees are still cautious about their activities outside of the office and expect similar caution at work. Identify protocols to address positive cases and stick to them. 

Expect a learning curve

No matter the work setup, it will take time to adjust. For leaders, this requires some extra grace as employees make the adjustment. What worked for employees at home may not work in-person. It will take time to adapt to new office setups, sustain the same level of productivity, and to get to reconnect with fellow employees – some of whom are new to the company. 

The office setup likely looks different from pre-pandemic times as companies work to support a combination of remote, hybrid work, and in-person working. The environment will take some getting used to as employees work to adapt their routines to a new space – and way of working. Leaders can help employees on this learning curve by openly acknowledging it and taking steps where appropriate to mitigate issues. With commutes and hybrid working arrangements in play, one way to help protect productivity and be mindful of everyone’s time is to use a tool like Clockwise. It can help by protecting focus time, accounting for commute and lunch times, and using AI to find the best meeting times for everyone’s schedule.

The new office environment

There’s been a lot of speculation – and action – over the last year when it comes to the new office environment and what’s next. Even as leaders execute best laid plans, variables from employee sentiment to new variants of Covid-19 have altered future actions – and changed employer directions. The return to the office is wholly different from the visions laid out in 2020, but there’s still plenty of room to support a strong productive organization through concerted efforts to communicate, be flexible, and anticipate even the tiniest of roadblocks to get to a 2022 working style that works for everyone. 

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