Returning to the office: Many employees are dreading a return to on-premise work

by Ryan Plank
return to office

How would you feel if your boss asked you to come back to the office next week?

Let’s say, for example, that you’ve been working remotely since the start of the pandemic. You had never considered remote work as a viable option before, but now that you’ve been working from home for over a year, you love it.

Your long and stressful commute is gone, you’ve been taking better care of yourself, and you have more time to spend with your family and friends. On top of that, you’re working more productively, your performance has improved, and you’re able to complete all of your work from the comfort of your favorite chair.

Then, in one of your weekly team meetings, your boss announces that you’ll be returning to work at the office, as soon as possible, with no exceptions.

Now you have to go back to the stressful commute, the stuffy dress code, and the cramped cubicle. You begin dreading the thought of working in uncomfortable temperatures, with the faint smell of microwaved fish leftovers hanging in the air – all the familiar hallmarks of working in the office.

And what if you weren’t even consulted about the switch? Or worse, you were consulted but leadership decided to revert back to the office anyway?

How would you feel? What would you do?

Inching towards a new normal

As COVID-19 vaccines become more available and society transitions into the post-pandemic era, more and more people will have to grapple with questions about the future of work.

Of course, there are those that are excited to return to the office. Some office workers miss the routine of commuting and the face-to-face interactions that have been lacking over the past year.

Others were never able to find a comfortable workspace of their own away from their traditional office space. For them, the idea of reopening the office is a welcomed return to how things used to be.  

However, according to data gathered during the pandemic, most workers are more interested in staying remote for as long as possible.

A recent survey conducted by Harvard Business School Online found that 81% of the 1,500 professionals polled either don’t want to go back to the office or would prefer a hybrid schedule going forward. At least 27% want to keep working remotely full-time. Only 18% of respondents said that they would want to go back to the office indefinitely.

Anxieties about returning to the office

For those who have taken to remote work, the thought of returning to an office has been anxiety-inducing. There are inherent health risks associated with returning to an office setting during a global, albeit lessening, pandemic.

Hand sanitizer, social distancing, and contact tracing can only go so far in easing the fears of those who are, or are caring for someone that is, immunocompromised. Even the newest COVID-19 vaccines aren’t one-hundred percent effective in preventing the spread of Coronavirus variants. 

For remote workers, many of the anxieties about returning to the office don’t just come from the health risks of Coronavirus. It’s the thought of losing all the quality-of-life gains they’ve made since the switch to remote work that strikes the most fear.

A January poll by Gallup showed that, while 17% of the workers they surveyed want to stay remote due to fears of Coronavirus, another 44% want to remain remote because they simply prefer it to working in the office.

The preference for remote work is understandable. Remote work has vastly improved the lives of many workers. They’ve been spared long and arduous commutes involving heavy traffic or crowded trains.

They’ve saved hundreds, even thousands, of dollars typically spent on gas, parking, or train tickets. Perhaps even more on coffees and lunches not purchased.

Most of all, they’ve gained time. Travel time and getting ready have been replaced with free time and getting fulfillment. Many have taken up new habits like reading, meditating, or exercising. Parents have been able to spend priceless time with their children that they never had prior to switching to remote work.

These dramatic improvements in the way people live their off-the-clock lives have garnered hordes of devout remote work evangelists. Growing numbers say they would rather find a new job than go back to the office.

So, when faced with the prospect of being ordered back into an on-premise work environment, many are met with feelings of anxiety, dread, and despair. For these workers, the idea of regressing back to their old work life is too much to bear.

office work post covid

The office will return

Many businesses will return to on-premise work in the near term, regardless of how reopening offices makes people feel. There’s too much value in it for some businesses, even if only part-time, not to continue collaborating face-to-face in colocated spaces when possible.

Even in roles that we’ve discovered don’t actually need to be performed in an office, there are still so many businesses that have too much capital tied up in office spaces to abandon them. The opportunity cost of simply bailing on the office doesn’t make sense in many instances.

In some cases, the desire to move back to the office has nothing to do with the value of in-person collaboration or the cost of breaking an existing commitment to a building. For some leaders, making the permanent move to remote work is just philosophically inconceivable.

David Soloman, chief executive at Goldman Sachs, believes that remote work is “an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible.” Google has already begun a partial reopening of its offices and announced that it will eventually limit employees to 14 WFH days per year.

Hybrid work will trend

For others, the benefits of remote work have provided enough value to move to a hybrid work model that allows for some WFH, mixed with some time in the office.

The hybrid work model has become a popular workplace trend for those trying to maintain the magic of remote work while also offsetting sunk costs and reintroducing in-person interaction to the company culture.

Facebook recently announced that it will be reopening its corporate headquarters as soon as May, but that it also expects half of its workforce to work remotely by 2030.

Ford Motor Company made the move to a hybrid work model, giving “non-place-dependent employees” the option to work remotely, when they noticed an increase in employee production after the pandemic-induced transition to remote.

Amazon unveiled plans for a mixed-use second headquarters to accommodate on-premise work while also hedging for some of the workforce remaining remote.

Some view hybrid work as the perfect balancing act of the old way and the new, but it also comes with its own set of challenges and risks. For those that have grown to love a fully remote work environment, a hybrid option won’t be enough to satisfy their need to work and live untethered from a physical office. 

Remote work will continue to thrive

Remote work advocates won’t be satisfied with half-measures. They love remote work, they value what they’ve gained from the transition, and they don’t miss what they’ve left behind.

The work opportunities for these people will only increase in the future of work. There’s even reason to believe that remote work will eventually outpace on-premise work models.

It’s cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and opens companies up to a much larger talent pool. Remote work had already been growing in popularity, but countless companies have announced the switch to fully remote work models since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this year, tech-giant Salesforce declared “the 9-to-5 workday is dead” when it joined Twitter in allowing employees to “work-from-home, forever.” 

Swedish streaming company Spotify also said that it would allow its entire workforce to “work from anywhere” as part of its Dynamic Workforce effort. The program aims to “reevaluate office spaces across the globe for increased sustainability, flexibility, and well-being to ensure that all Spotify employees, regardless of ability or situation, can work comfortably and efficiently.”

With so many major companies leading the charge toward a more remote-friendly future, those that value remote work will have greater opportunity to choose the work style that best suits them. Odds are that many of them will ditch their current employers in favor of those offering a fully remote work option.

One of the major advantages for a business operating fully remote is that their options for talent are no longer tied to a physical location. Remote companies can pull top talent from the global workforce, rather than only those within reasonable driving distance of the office.

This could have a massive impact on companies’ ability to attract and retain top talent, forcing them to either acquiesce to offering remote work options or settle for a more limited local talent pool.

Final thoughts

The future of work is uncertain right now, but the picture is beginning to get clearer. As President Joe Biden, the CDC, and local governments begin to remove restrictions, more businesses will begin calling their workforces back into the office.

While this will undoubtedly lead to some stressful conversations and difficult decisions, it may prove to be the course correction that opens up a new and better way of working. A world of work where employees can choose the work model that works best for them.

What a relief.

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