With visions of endemicity dancing in their heads, executives and managers a are eyeing fresh return-to-office plans — for the fourth time.
With Omicron fading, my colleague Emma Goldberg told me that we are at an R.T.O. turning point.
“Some managers have a sense that the longer they continue to postpone R.T.O., the more elusive it seems, the more entrenched work-from-home habits become and the harder it is to shape a future in which people re-embrace their commuting and other office habits,” Emma said. “So for employers and managers, there’s a sense of urgency around return to office that hadn’t existed before.”
The second anniversary of the first lockdown holds extra psychological weight, Emma added. At the same time, there’s “a strange sense of optimism that this time, R.T.O. plans might actually stick.”
Where are we with R.T.O. plans?
Some Wall Street firms, like Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan Chase, called workers back this month. There are a handful of employers that are targeting early March, BNY Mellon, for example, and American Express.
And then you also have a handful that saw their plans upended by Omicron, and they have not yet set a firm return date. So, for example, Google had postponed its return-to-office plans and things are still up in the air. Lyft is targeting 2023 at the earliest. So you have a wide range in terms of how much certainty people are willing to affix to their plans.
Why is there a sense that this time plans might stick?
Some executives and managers have this sense that they’re no longer formulating their R.T.O. plans around the unfounded hope that Covid will disappear. They know there’s no silver bullet coming. Instead, they’re formulating plans with the understanding that they now know how to keep their workers safe, with things like vaccine mandates and testing.
At the same time, they’re going into this latest round of planning with a lot more understanding of the flexibility that’s required of them. They understand that there might be another variant that creates the need for another lockdown. So they’re hedging a little bit more, and admitting a little bit more of their uncertainty even to their employees.
How are employees feeling?
Some employees, who for the past few years had been happy to embrace all the postponements, are somewhat excited to finally be back in the office and regain a sense of mentorship and camaraderie.
At the same time, there are many people, especially caregivers and parents of children too young to be vaccinated, who are not able to come back so easily. There’s a very strong set of needs and emotional responses to the idea of R.T.O. from all sides. After all, we’re talking about the way people structure their lives, work and family responsibilities.
How does post-Omicron R.T.O. look different from previous iterations?
It’s complicated because since the last round of R.T.O. plans were announced, there has been a lot of change around the state of mask mandates and vaccine mandates. So the Supreme Court struck down the Biden administration’s sweeping vaccine rule, and that’s thrown the responsibility to employers to design their own vaccine rules. And in a lot of cases, they are restricted by state and local regulations.
So what offices look like post-Omicron is going to vary dramatically by geography. For example, businesses in Texas and Florida are very limited in the types of vaccine mandates and rules they can impose on their work force. Meanwhile, some businesses in New York are pressing ahead with vaccine rules, and a lot of them are saying that when you’re walking around public spaces in the office, you have to be masked. A lot of them are also making tests available to their employees, and in some cases, sending tests to their employees at home.
What else has changed?
Employers are recognizing that the type of work that’s best done in an office is often different from the type of work that’s best done at home. So you’re seeing workplaces acknowledge that maybe people want to be home to do their deep focused work, and then want to come into the office to collaborate and connect with their colleagues. Employers are thinking about how to really take advantage of the mentorship and community-building aspects of the office.
But the biggest issue that I’m hearing raised by a lot of people, whether it’s managers, workers or workplace experts, is how do we ensure that return to office doesn’t mean return to normal. Because there’s fear among some workers that we will hit the two-year mark since lockdown, offices will begin to reopen in earnest, and a lot of the old habits and norms that were left behind in March 2020 will just be picked up again.
And a lot of people are asking how do we ensure that workplaces are really living up to the promises of hybrid work and flexibility. That is, creating the flexibility that’s needed for caregivers and working mothers. Ensuring that some of the microaggressions and toxic social norms of the office prepandemic are rooted out as people are returning. And how do we make sure that employers are using the opportunity created by all the changes that we’ve seen to make the office a place that works better for people from all different backgrounds and communities.
Author: Jonathan Wolfe