Earlier in 2021, many major companies announced plans for a mandatory return to the office, even disincentivizing remote work. But as described in the WSJ article Surging Covid-19 Puts an End to Projected Return-to-Office Dates by Peter Grant, a new strategy is required. Article highlights follow.

Lessons Learned

There’s a fundamental problem setting deadlines around an unpredictable event; often, the event has other plans. Both Delta and the Omicron variants of Covid-19 have twice derailed major companies’ plans to return to the office. From the Grant article, “Companies across the U.S. said they were returning to the workplace in September, only to put off those plans when the spread of the Delta variant accelerated. Many of those same firms were poised to dust off their office desks in January. Now major banks, technology companies and other firms have scrapped those plans thanks to the Omicron variant, and a sense that Covid-19 is going to linger longer than most first imagined.”

Indefinite Future

But businesses aren’t the only ones on shaky ground. Also, from the grant article, “The postponements have unnerved office landlords and small businesses that are being stretched thin by a dearth of demand in office districts. An average of only 28% of the workforce last week returned to the office in the 10 major cities monitored by Kastle Systems, a nationwide security company that monitors access-card swipes. That compares with more than 40% the first week in December…These reversals have persuaded many business leaders to avoid specific return dates. Instead, they are adopting more nuanced workplace strategies that recognize that Covid-19 will be around for the indefinite future.”

Flexibility vs. Set Return Dates

But, of course, businesses that adapt to their environment effectively are the most successful. Grant continues, “Those plans, which are still being crafted at many companies, will mean adjusting the use of conventional office space depending on need and health conditions. For example, rather than devising an officewide return date, companies are working on systems that would vary the number of employees in offices depending on the Covid-19 infection rate for the indefinite future, human-resources executives say…Some businesses also are working on strategies that would base office returns on the needs of specific groups, these executives say. Under this system, managers would ask employees who are working on a sales or marketing presentation to gather in offices to collaborate, and then return to mostly working at home when it is finished.”

It seems the only effective strategy against unpredictability is a good measure of flexibility. Luckily, for most companies, the technology exists to facilitate remote work and temporarily bring workers together for in-person collaboration. Only time will tell.

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