Returning to work: Executives discuss office reentry plans, challenges and the future

More than one year into remote work, a recent report found that many companies don't even have a reentry plan. But even with the best-laid plans will employees want to return?

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Image: GettyImages/Ezra Bailey

More than one year after the switch to remote work en masse, a number of companies are starting to usher employees back to the traditional workplace. Bringing workforces back to the in-person office after a year of remote work comes with no shortage of challenges. We spoke with a number of executives across industries to understand company-specific return-to-work strategies, implementation considerations and more.

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Return to work: Vaccination rules, hybrid models and loose ends

In April, software company TINYpulse released its "State of Employee Engagement" report highlighting employer return to work strategies, vaccination policies and more. David Niu, CEO of TINYpulse, referenced this report via email, noting a specific stat in particular: At the time, two in five organizations had no formalized office reentry policy.

"I think for many, it's just a waiting game," he said.

In recent weeks, the CDC has updated its public health guidelines, and this includes no longer recommending vaccinated people wear masks or "physically distance in any setting," stating that these indoor and outdoor "activities pose minimal risk to fully vaccinated people."

Elisabeth Joyce, vice president of advisory in the Gartner HR practice, explained that these latest guidelines have spurred some organizations to begin office reentry planning.

"The latest guidance from the CDC regarding vaccinations and mask mandates has prompted organizations that have taken the "wait and see" approach to start to move towards a solution and timeline for return," Joyce said. 

As for TINYpulse's own office reentry plan, Niu said the company is "actively reviewing" its own return-to-work survey results and plans to announce its strategy by June. Although the plan isn't finalized, Niu said the company anticipates starting with a hybrid work model and "actively collecting feedback" about "what is and isn't working" so the company can make adjustments in "real time."

"HR managers reported more willingness to get a vaccine for vacation rather than keeping their job. This speaks volumes about current sentiment," Niu said. "People are itching to return to normal and catch a break. This finding raises the question of how employees would respond to mandated vaccine policies."

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Image: iStock/halfpoint

The new office redesigned

Businesses have incorporated a number of technologies and design elements to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the new normal office, this ranges from thermal imaging to detect elevated body temperatures to installing plexiglass partitions.

Charlie Newark-French, COO of automation company Hyperscience, said the company will be using a larger space at One World Trade Center and explained that the environment will "skew more toward communal, collaborative spaces" compared to its previous office.

"We think the days of squeezing into 150 square foot per person, on average, are somewhat over—and our employee base has doubled during the pandemic," he said.

The NYC location is set to reopen at 50% capacity in June on an "optional basis," Newark-French explained, noting that the "intent behind opening up now" is to provide employees with a workplace "if their home set-up is not ideal" and to enable in-person collaboration if people have a "firm preference to do so."

Any employee who enters the office will need to submit proof of their COVID-19 vaccination, according to Newark-French, and he said the company is making software investments with its proof-of-vaccination requirements to ensure this information is stored and tracked in compliance with "local and federal guidelines."

This software will allow employees to schedule and reserve in-office days, complete their self-screening tests, submit their vaccination card and more, Newark-French said. 

"The Hyperscience leadership team created this return-to-work strategy after countless conversations about what is best for all of our employees, taking into account each office and individual's specific needs," he said.

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Image: GettyImages/Werner Dieterich

Hybrid work models employee surveys

Internal polling has played a large role in determining office reopening strategies for a number of companies, including Paylocity, a human capital management platform. Kate Grimaldi, Paylocity's director of strategic talent management and HR, said the company used employee polls and surveys on upcoming plans including voluntary office reopenings to gauge workforce sentiments on these topics.

"Our data also shows that employees do not need to be in the office every day to create a strong culture. For example, 60% of our product and tech teams are remote, but they regularly hold annual conferences, and team leaders host regular gatherings in the office," Grimaldi said.

Paylocity has been planning its office reopenings for the "last few months," Grimaldi explained, noting that the company has "consciously decided on an initial re-entry plan that can loosen up" as the CDC updates its guidance.

"While we've been planning for the actual return relatively recently, we had started prepping our spaces and offices for return since we left the office—so that when we finally knew it was OK to start people back, we didn't have to worry about making sure we had all the safety precautions in place, contact tracing guidelines, manager and HR training, etc.," Grimaldi said.

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She also provided a bulleted list of the company's current office reentry approach, noting that this strategy will be "constantly" evaluated. Paylocity's current strategy includes incorporating hand sanitizing stations around the office, situational mask requirements and social distancing recommendations in meeting rooms, according to Grimaldi.

Additionally, Grimaldi explained that the company discourages employees from asking others about their vaccination status as well as "hugging, shaking hands" and fist-bumping for now.

"We announced these policies to staff this week, with our phased approach beginning in June, and we posted an asynchronous video for all staff to preview these procedures and a link to the CDC Guidelines," she said. "We're targeting after Labor day for a more formal return to office—all based on CDC guidelines and state and local mandates."

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Image: iStock/annastills

The new normal and hybrid flex options

Kristen Ruttgaizer, vice president of people and culture at Igloo Software, said that it's "no secret that office norms will never be quite the same" compared with pre-pandemic standards while noting the importance of remembering that "the end goal remains the same" as companies outline their office reentry strategies.

"By keeping employees informed and engaged throughout the return-to-work process, they are more likely to report higher satisfaction, which will positively impact productivity and creativity," she said.

Ruttgaizer explained that Igloo Software is "following this mantra by strategically developing" its office reentry plan that "first and foremost identifies employee needs," adding that this current framework involves a hybrid work model as well as more open "collaborative spaces" at the traditional office.

The company is still in the "planning phase," Ruttgaizer explained, noting that Igloo is in "full alignment with public health regulations once they are finalized." She said the company conducted several internal employee surveys to pinpoint the "best path" for workers to "successfully return to the office" while also offering the ability to telecommute.

"We did this to ensure that every employee feels heard, supported, comfortable and, of course, safe," Ruttgaizer said.

Vijay Sundaram, chief strategy officer of ManageEngine, said the company has "reimagined" the office reentry plan using two strategies. With one of these plans, he explained that the company has established small satellite offices and many of these are situated in rural locations "so people can be closer to where they may live." Additionally, the company has "set up a farm office where employees can come in and work in a farm setting with open spaces and social distancing," Sundaram said.

"Both plans are consistent with our strategy of moving work away from high-population areas; that was put in place even before the pandemic," he said.

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Image: GettyImages/Greg Pease

Do employees want to go back to the office?

Plans or no plans, one looming question remains after a year of remote work: Do employees want to return to the office? In March, Blind, an anonymous network for professionals, published the results of a survey that found that one in three employees would quit if work from home ended.

"The biggest challenge associated with the return to the workplace is the potential for misalignment between what leaders and managers want and what employees want. This creates a clear risk of attrition," Joyce said.

Joyce referenced Gartner data to illustrate this point, explaining that "54% of employees report flexibility, or the lack thereof, will impact whether they stay at an organization moving forward."

Over the last 12 months, many remote professionals have also provided care for members of their household on top of their work duties. A separate Blind survey found that employers who are bringing remote caregivers back to the office could need to give several weeks' notice with continued work flexibility moving forward. 

Lexy Martin, head of research at workforce analytics company Visier, discussed the company's reopening plans and the challenges associated with bringing caregivers back to the traditional office.

"While a variety of reasons exist behind a lack of excitement to return to the office, our research shows an increase in caregiving responsibilities and 'workplace mothering' tasks that women have assumed during the pandemic have created a stressful environment," Martin said.

As part of the office reentry plans, Martin explained that the "benefits and support that organizations provide to female employees need to change" to "avoid forcing women to choose between their careers and caregiving responsibilities."

During the coronavirus pandemic, millions of women have left the workforce with online learning and child care responsibilities behind a portion of these losses. For example, in the aforementioned Blind survey, among respondents with children at home, men were twice as likely to say they could return to work now.

"While caring leaders are certainly an important part of the equation, without the critical benefits needed to support women in the workplace, it's simply not enough, and women will continue leaving the workforce if these issues aren't addressed as part of return-to-office plans," Martin said.

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Image: GettyImages/Westend61

Nearly 40% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the CDC's COVID Data Tracker. However, vaccination rates have declined as of late as some people who choose to not get the jab altogether remain hesitant about doing so. Bringing employees back to the office amid a global contagion comes with no shortage of challenges or legal considerations for companies to chew on.

Creating surveys, fielding questions and channeling CDC guidelines into a coherent office reentry plan is one thing; seeing this strategy through is another challenge altogether. Joyce also detailed the importance of effectively communicating these ideas to employees.

"Reality and perception will be a major focus on any return to workplace strategy. Not only do organizations need to implement safety protocols, they also need to communicate them to employees to ensure that employees feel safe," Joyce said.

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