The COVID-19 pandemic brought about unprecedented changes in the way businesses operate, with remote work becoming the norm for many companies. As the world transitions back to a semblance of normalcy, some businesses are grappling with the decision to bring employees back to the office. As reported by The New York Times, even Zoom, a company whose name became synonymous with virtual meetings during the pandemic, is requiring its employees to return to the office. This move has been met with mixed reactions, highlighting the complexities businesses face in balancing operational needs with employee preferences.
A Disparity in Views
The push for a return to the office by many major corporations is in most instances not about inconveniencing employees or, as some employees may believe, micromanaging their activities. As highlighted by Business Insider, companies like Amazon, BlackRock, and Salesforce emphasize the importance of in-person collaboration, believing it strengthens company culture. There is a consensus that certain elements of work, such as camaraderie, spontaneous brainstorming sessions, and the nuances of face-to-face communication, are challenging to replicate in a virtual environment. Employers often view in-person interactions as crucial for team cohesion, creativity, and company culture.
On the other hand, some employees have expressed concerns about returning, citing the benefits and flexibility that remote work offers. A piece from Vox delves into the intricacies of the return-to-office dilemma. Many employees, having adapted to remote work, are reluctant to return to the office, especially when they feel there's no tangible benefit. The reasons for this reluctance vary: some employees have enjoyed the flexibility and lack of commute, while others feel they are more productive at home.
Businesses that own property or have long-term leases have real estate as another consideration. Some feel that leaving office space empty, even partially, is a waste of resources. According to an article in Fortune, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who in June announced a pilot program with DC37 allowing eligible city workers to work from home up to 2 days a week, has been advocating for the conversion of office spaces into housing units. Proposals such as this to adapt commercial real estate may change the perspective of some employers on whether employees may work from home.
Making the Decision
The return to the office issue is a multifaceted one that requires careful consideration by businesses. The answer may vary by employee, department, or location. It is important, however, that the decision not treat employees differently based upon sex, race, disability, nationality or other protected characteristic.
Consideration must also be given to employees who have disabilities that will be impacted by returning to the office. Employees who have been working from home for three years may have needs that were naturally accommodated by working from home and therefore not addressed with the employer. An open dialogue should be had with an employee who expresses reluctance to return to the office to see if that reluctance is based upon a disability, and if so, whether reasonable accommodations may be made to allow that employee to come into the office.
If the decision is made to bring employees back, whether full-time or hybrid, employees should be given some time to make appropriate arrangements. An employee may need to set up childcare for an extra hour a day to accommodate travel time, to get a dog walker for that puppy they adopted, to purchase a car for their commute to the office, to find someone to give a relative medication that they were administering during their lunch hour, or a host of other things that work from home allowed them to do. In addition, notice gives employees an opportunity to adjust mentally to the prospect of working from the office. It is important that the decision to return to the office is made and implemented taking the needs of both the business and the employees into account, and with respect and understanding on both sides.