Return to work trends: Water cooler or Zoom?
18 months ago, the coronavirus upended everything. Office spaces were nearly empty. Public transportation practically stopped. Roads cleared.
Almost overnight, the whole world found itself at home, sheltering from an unknown virus. People made their way across the country to leave high-risk areas, or to escape small, city apartments. As leaving the house gradually becomes safer, companies and employees want different things than before the pandemic.
While the great experiment of working from home saw a consistent level of business productivity early on, the world is no longer forcing everyone to stay home.
Just as the world was beginning to gain sight around the curve of the pandemic, the Delta variant emerged to change return to work plans. Facebook changed plans multiple times, with the latest update pushing its return to the office back to January 2022.
As vaccinations and worries of the next variant rise, executives and human resource professionals are tasked with building safe return to work strategies. Since February of last year, our Future of Work briefing has tracked the latest trends in the media around us.
Below are the resources our subscribers found to be most useful during a time of many unknowns.
Knowledge workers like remote work
In March of 2020, everyone entered an emergency contingency plan of working from home. While the change was abrupt, workers found many benefits from WFH, including:
- Fewer microaggressions – People of color have especially enjoyed working from home without the worry of microaggressions from colleagues. People of color, especially women, have noticed fewer microaggressions in their home workplace than in the physical office.
- More flexibility – When Silicon Valley companies adopted the work from home transition, employees left the expensive state, opting to live on their California salary in the Midwest. Remote work is likely here to stay. Especially for women who lost significant gains during the pandemic, flexible schedules can help the recovery.
- Increased productivity – With a much shorter commute from the bedroom to the office (sometimes one and the same), employees were much more productive during the day. However, this has started to drop off as burnout increases and hard workers struggle to separate work from non-work hours.
Throughout the past 18 months, employees are finding they prefer a hybrid work model over simply staying remote or always being in the office.
Employees and their managers are eager to return to the office to strengthen company culture, build connection and loyalty, and increase collaboration with water-cooler chats. While Zoom and other collaboration tools (like Preciate) have adapted to help teams engage online, nothing is quite like getting together in person.
The future of work… stays home?
Autonomy has been an extremely valuable resource for employees throughout the pandemic. When everything else seemed out of control, people had the power to choose where to work from, and sometimes even when to work. With the shift back to a physical workplace, many companies are finding employees would rather quit their job than return to the office.
Amazon backtracked its initial remote work policy to allow workers to choose their hybrid work schedule.
When Apple first announced its three-day work week, employees were outraged at the sudden loss of control. Tim Cook asked all employees to be in the office on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays – which prompted a letter from staff members. The opening line of the letter requested “…remote and location-flexible work decisions to be…autonomous for a team to decide…”
As COVID-19 cases spike with the Delta variant, Apple announced in late July it will stay remote for at least another month.
Challenges of hybrid work
Many companies, like Gitlab, have been purely WFH for years now. The CEO of Gitlab has advice to share with companies eyeing a more permanent change to their office locations. While he calls it, “the worst of both worlds,” the current hiring market almost demands work-from-home options.
Remote work job searches increased 460% in the past year. In a tight talent market, most companies will need to offer hybrid schedules to stay competitive.
Considerations for returning to the office
A study by McKinsey found that one-third of workers in the office throughout 2021 are experiencing increased mental stress and anxiety. At a time when the risk of burnout is incredibly high, McKinsey recommends considering mental health accommodations when asking employees back into the office. As mentioned above, people of color can be especially impacted by unwelcoming, and sometimes unsafe, work environments. In the same study, employees who are already in the office and noticed a positive impact on their mental health. The same employees were nearly twice as engaged and present in person.
Further reading from our Future of Work Briefing:
- Total vaccinations numbers up as cities announce vaccine mandates – NBC News – August 16, 2021
- What’s fueling ‘The Great Resignation’ among younger generations? – Fortune – August 26, 2021
- “The Hybrid Work Revolution Is Already Transforming Economies” – Bloomberg – August 26, 2021
What have we learned?
Earlier this year, we published our findings from the Daily Coronavirus Leadership Briefing. As the pandemic continues but the world evolves, we’ve learned more about the future of work.
The work world may not return to pre-pandemic normalcy, but leaders are finding creative ways to rebuild a better work-life balance. As your business and family navigate the next steps of these unexpected times, subscribe to the Future of Work briefing to stay in the know.