After more than one year, the great WFH experiment is coming to a close for employees. Amid mass vaccination efforts and buzz related to COVID-19 variants, many employees are preparing to return to the office. Bringing workers on-site mid-pandemic comes with no shortage of challenges. TechRepublic spoke with employees about office reentry. For many, office reentry comes with a mixed bag of anxiety, excitement and a thirst for in-person interaction after months of virtual collaboration.
SEE: COVID vaccination policy (TechRepublic Premium)
Darko Ivanoski, the founder of ESTAForm, said the company has been operating virtually since March 2020 but is preparing to bring employees on-site in “the next few months.” Ivanoski said the company’s “biggest concern” is ensuring a safe workplace for employees returning to the office.
“We’ve spent a lot of time and money on installing barriers around people’s desks and putting up hand sanitizer in every room. Even with these measures in place, there is still a risk that people might get sick. But the rapid rate of vaccination is very promising on this front,” Ivanoski said.
During the first few weeks, Ivanoski expects people will “struggle to acclimate themselves to being back in an office,” but is “sure it will be smooth sailing” once employees are “settled in.”
Initially, Ivanoski thought it would be “difficult to get people excited about coming back into the office,” but said “people are more eager to get back than” anticipated.
“We’re a relatively small team, and having to have all our interactions remotely negatively affected everyone’s mood,” Ivanoski said. “I think we underestimated how important it was to be able to chat with your colleagues. When we started to work remotely, all [of] our interactions were purely business, and I think we lost some sense of camaraderie.”
Markus Albert, the managing director at corporate catering service, Eat First, provided a dual perspective and discussed the office return as an “executive whose business is dependent upon a widespread return to on-site work” as well as an employer “trying to [roll out] a return to the office.” Albert said one of his biggest concerns is “what effect pandemic PTSD will have on employees’ ability to concentrate and do their jobs while surrounded by other people.”
In recent months, discussions surrounding COVID-19 passports have taken center stage as vaccination efforts ramp up and offices reopen. To help mitigate the spread of contagion on-site, a number of companies are considering vaccination mandates or proof of inoculation for returning workers.
In March, LaSalle Network released the first installment of its Office Re-Entry Index based on a survey involving CEOs, COOs and leaders in finance and human resources. Overall, 39% of respondents were undecided about requiring “employees to get vaccinated before returning to the office,” and 34% of respondents who had not yet brought employees back to the office anticipated “conflicts to arise” between the staff and company executives related to “return-to-work policies,” according to the index.
“I am also concerned about the legality of requiring a COVID passport or proof of vaccination for any of the employees that return to our physical office space, as many [businesses] are contemplating doing,” Albert said.
Aside from these concerns, Albert noted his excitement about in-person collaboration with colleagues and other social aspects of office work.
“I am excited about asking friends and coworkers about their lives without worrying that I am asking a question with only a negative answer, and I am greatly looking forward to the motivation that I feel when surrounded by other hard-working, productive people,” Albert said.
Eric Florence, a cybersecurity analyst, said they are transitioning to in-person work, and the process “feels like somewhat of a relief” for many people on the team.
“Whether you enjoyed an office environment or not, something about getting back to the 9-5 and clocking in at an office feels familiar and, oddly enough, comforting,” Florence said.
Self-described as “something of a people person,” Florence said his team has enjoyed the “face time with others,” but said the move back to the in-person office “also comes with some reminders of why we all left in the first place.”
Florence described “constant mask reminders” on doors and in conferencing areas, new sanitization stations on-site and intermittent anonymized emails about team members who have “tested positive for COVID and to wish them a speedy recovery.”
“Overall, we understand that now, more than ever, we have to take care to make sure we can maintain this atmosphere and progress towards a safe working environment for everyone’s mental and physical benefit,” Florence said.
SEE: Wellness at work: How to support your team’s mental health (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
Sam Patel who works at CheapSSLsecurity.com, a web security provider, said they returned to the office after their second vaccine shot and just under half of the staff (40%) has gone back to the office. Patel said some of the employees are concerned about the commute.
When employees were working from home, Patel said most of the workers were saving a half-hour each way on their average commute times; on top of that, Patel noted that it takes “extra time to get ready for the office.”
Beyond the commute considerations, Patel said that there is “ongoing concern” about being a “carrier of the virus,” even though the company has a “strict policy” about vaccination prior to returning to the office.
“There is not enough research data yet on how [an inoculated] person could become a silent carrier of the COVID. So, many of [the staff] members, including myself, have concerns that we might still catch [the virus] and carry it home, where kids are still vulnerable,” Patel said.
Aside from these concerns, Patel said employees are enjoying “in-person team meetings, conversations, and lunchtime chitchat,” explaining that they all “thoroughly missed” these opportunities.
Francesca Nicasio, a content marketer at Payment Depot, said workers would soon be returning to the office and felt “both hesitant and excited.”
The hesitancy is due to concerns about the virus adapting, even though they will be vaccinated, Nicasio said they were “unsure how effective the vaccine will be against future versions of COVID.” On the positive side, Nicasio said they were excited about the return to the in-person office because they missed “face-to-face interactions.”
The team has used video conferencing tools and other platforms to continue operations, but Nicasio said these aren’t the same; explaining that being together enables an environment “where there is more opportunity to be involved in conversations that aren’t directly related to my projects but may spark an idea that I can use for some content.”
“I don’t think it’ll be exactly how it was, at least to begin with,” Nicasio said. “People will probably try to keep distanced and minimize interactions but as long as no one gets sick I think the natural human tendency to be social will take over.”