No Single Solution for Post-Pandemic Return to Workplace

May 28, 2021

For employees who have been working from home since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the reopening of workplaces may mean it’s time to return — but return to what, exactly? 

“Return to work?” As anyone who’s been putting in more hours working from home than they did during pre-pandemic times in the office, “return to work” isn’t just insufficient; it’s inaccurate. You can’t return to something you never left. 

“Return to normal?” Forget about it. Whatever it is we’re returning to, “normal” — if by that we mean conditions as they existed before COVID-19 — is history. Regardless of how we’d like it to be, the workplace will never again be exactly as it was before March 2020. 

“Return to the office?” That may be accurate for some, inaccurate for others and somewhere in between for those planning to work a hybrid schedule. In short, it ignores the complexity of the workforce and conveys a simplicity that doesn’t exist. 

We — employers and employees — need to think about this differently. Instead of talking about a return to work or a return to the office, we should be talking about working in a way that is productive for both employer and employee.  

And, as Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close, we need to remain mindful of how important employee well-being is to overall productivity. 

Aberration or Adaptation? 

During the first quarter of 2021, with about 90 percent of its employees working remotely, Goldman Sachs took in a reported $18 billion in revenue and $7 billion in profits. Yet it was a comment CEO David Solomon made in the middle of the quarter that brought the firm a sudden spike in media coverage. 

Speaking at a conference in February, Solomon called his company’s work-from-home policy “an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible.” 

“I don’t think as we get out of the pandemic the overall operating mode of the way a business like our operates will be vastly different” from what it was before the pandemic, he added. 

Business leaders who share that outlook may be asking for trouble. 

According to Employee Benefit News, almost 60% of employees said in a survey conducted by the job listings platform Flexjobs that they would quit their job if their employer forced them to return to the office, while more than a third said they would like to continue working from home permanently. 

It appears many employers have been listening. 

In an April article headlined “Returning to the Office Sparks Anxiety and Dread for Some,” the New York Times reported: 

“Salesforce says its work-from-anywhere approach would ‘unlock new growth opportunities’ and ‘drive greater equality.’ Spotify describes its flexible work policy as a ‘jewel in our Talent Attraction crown.’ 

“Target, Ford Motor Co. and PricewaterhouseCoopers say they are going to let office workers work remotely more frequently. Even Wall Street banks where employees often while away hours at their desks to be seen by the boss are preaching the gospel of flexibility. JPMorgan Chase is telling some workers they can cycle in and out of the office.” 

Given the number of workers who have relocated during the pandemic, gambling that they would be allowed to continue remote working after their office reopened, approaches like the one adopted by Salesforce may be hugely beneficial to attracting and retaining talent. 

Varied Solutions for Varied Mental Health Challenges 

While many people report experiencing mental health challenges associated with the pandemic, reasons for those challenges vary – and so do attitudes about returning to the workplace. 

According to the mental health and brain performance self-care platform Total Brain, anxiety and depression became more prevalent in April after signs of improvement at the start of 2021. “Some workers’ anxiety may stem from their feelings about returning to an office after working remotely during the pandemic,” the platform reported. “This aligns with a recent Total Brain survey of 425 Americans who were temporarily working remotely that found two-thirds are ‘somewhat’ or ‘extremely’ anxious about returning to work in-person.” 

But not everyone who is experiencing mental health challenges is anxious about returning to the workplace. For some reporting feelings of depression brought on by isolation during the pandemic, the prospect of returning to the office and seeing colleagues in person  may be cause for eagerness rather than anxiety. 

Sheeta Verma, a 21-year-old employee of a Boston-based tech firm, told the Times, “Being the youngest in the office, I don’t get to connect with my colleagues and it’s important that I connect, to get to know them, understand their mind set, how they learn and grow their careers.” 

Those experiencing anxiety, meanwhile, cite various causes. Some fear for their health. Some dread resuming a long commute. Some have concerns about child or elder care. Others – especially the introverted and those who have reached a certain level or professional maturity – may simply enjoy the additional freedom, flexibility and control over social interactions that working from home affords them. 

Savvy employers will recognize that having empathy and acting with compassion aren’t just about being good; they’re good business. 

5 Approaches to Post-Pandemic Work Arrangements 

It isn’t just employees who vary in their needs and wishes for a safe, happy and productive work arrangements. Businesses vary, as well, and so the approach each employer takes has to take into consideration multiple factors.  

When considering remote work, on-site work or a hybrid, employers should pause and ask, “What’s our objective here?” The objectives likely won’t be to place employees in an enclosure, but rather to have a capable, productive, and reliable workforce engaged in achieving their mission. Many of the answers to questions about whether and how to allow or encourage (or require) remote work as part of their overall workforce strategy will emerge when a business understands their true objectives.   

In some industries — manufacturing and brick-and-mortar retail, to name a couple — working from home isn’t realistic for much of their workforce. In others, solutions may be as different as the businesses themselves. 

In others, remote work is emerging as an expectation among the labor force. Employers who understand that offer the option, and do it well will have a competitive advantage attracting and retaining top talent. They also potentially expand their labor market by realizing that geographic boundaries fall away or expand.   

There are cultural and practical considerations that employers and employees will want to consider before adopting remote work as a long-term part of their employment strategy — equipment and who pays for it, software and technological savvy, work schedules and availability, communications with co-workers and clients, performance measures, policy updates and training, to name a few.   

Employee Benefit News recently offered these five plans from business leaders who have prioritized the well-being of their employees

  1. Step by step — The Boston-based pharmacy benefits platform RxSense is taking a two-phased approach, beginning in June. In Phase 1, employees may return voluntarily, provided they’re fully vaccinated. Phase 2 will depend on vaccination and infection rates but is expected to have employees who previously worked in the office begin a hybrid schedule of two or three days at home per week.  

  2. One office, two companies — GEM, a Venice, CA-based make of dietary supplements, is exploring a work-from-anywhere approach with a two- or three-day-a-week hybrid option in a space shared another company. 

  3. Regional workspaces — The Mom Project, a national job-placement and recruiting firm based in Chicago, has implemented a remote-first model but is looking to open “studio locations” in centralized cities to allow regional groups to “collaborate together in a dedicated space.” 

  4. Shorter weeks — Based in San Francisco, Storq prides itself on work flexibility. It plans to experiment with a four-day work week this summer, with the possibility of implementing it year-round. 

  5. Increased safety — Owl Labs, a Somerville, MA-based designer and manufacturer of 360-degree video conferencing devices, does not currently require employees to work in-office but has taken extensive precautions to protect the health and safety of those who choose to do so. These include limiting capacity and requiring screening check-in forms. 

To assist employers with planning for employees’ return to the workplace, including the implementation of vaccination policies, Alera Group published the whitepaper “COVID-19 Vaccines: What Employers Need to Know.” The guide includes information on whether employers can require vaccination to return to the workplace, 10 steps for employers to take to prepare employees for vaccination, and questions and answers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To obtain the guide, click the link below. 


About the Author  

Thomas Showalter

HR Services Director

Alera ConnectHR 

As a trusted adviser, Thomas Showalter seeks to help businesses perform at their best by helping people perform at theirs. Thomas founded Alera ConnectHR to provide businesses the HR they want. Alera ConnectHR’s teams help business leaders envision the work culture, talent and engagement that will foster long-term success, then roll up our sleeves to make it happen. As the head of Alera ConnectHR Tom’s role is simple: provide his team with the guidance, support, and resources to deliver on that commitment. 

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