Returning to the Office After COVID: What to Expect

The pandemic is far from over, but with more American adults than not now vaccinated, states have lifted mask mandates, and businesses are returning to some sense of normalcy. This movement means many will be returning to work in after more than a year of working from home. 

Heading back to the office will be a psychological shift for many workers who have entirely adjusted to working remotely, avoiding commutes, and Zooming with coworkers. What the world will look like after the coronavirus pandemic is still to be seen , but taking steps to prepare your team for success can boost morale and understanding in your organization.

returning to work after coronavirus

Life After the Pandemic: What Will Be Different 

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it's to question the way we used to do business. Yearly, the common cold spread throughout offices with no actual work-from-home policies established. Now, employees have proved that they can hold their own while operating remotely. Many businesses will rethink office layouts and sanitization practices as the health and safety of employees takes priority. 

Beyond physical safety, employees will have different expectations of their employers. Workers will look for more autonomy, connection, fairness and support from their leaders. COVID-19 took a toll on the mental health of everyone during more than a year of isolation. Bouncing back to a new normal will take some time while teams strive to come together physically once again.

Returning to the Office, Remote Work, or a Hybrid Model?

Employers are split on whether or not they intend to bring all of their employees back to the office, especially with the pandemic still a worldwide threat as countries work at different paces to stamp it out. Here are some of the upsides and downsides of staying remote.

Pros of Remote Work

At least in theory, remote work truly allows the "life" in work-life balance. Many families spent more time together during the pandemic. Workers had the comforts of home while finding ways to be productive. Gaining an extra hour a day, American workers (who spends an average of 26 minutes commuting each way) could spend their time how they pleased while working from home, instead of sitting in traffic.

On the other hand, research suggests that many employees that transitioned to working from home are in fact working more than they did before. Though this might mean higher productivity, these extra hours need to be carefully balanced, and managers would do well to encourage employees to take advantage of the flexibility offered by remote work.

Moving to a completely digital setup in 2020 benefited businesses by creating efficiencies in workflows and project management. Contractors and part-time employees could be easily synced with the rest of the staff without gaps in interaction, a significant and beneficial shift.

Cons of Remote Work 

Remote work can be challenging in workplaces that rely on close collaboration or that enjoy a strong onsite company culture. Ordinary interactions at the coffee pot or water cooler were no longer possible, and creative work that benefitted from in-person brainstorming sessions or whiteboard mapping has suffered. That physical separation can have the effect of making team members feel isolated, and result in a breakdown of communication.

With low employee visibility, organizations have struggled with reliability and retention. While some people thrive in a work-from-home environment, many are faced with distractions leading to a loss of productivity. If not prepared for remote work, new hires and trainers alike can struggle with onboarding well. Finally, higher rates of burnout, turnover, and disengagement are inevitable without proper work-from-home preparation.


remote work

When and How Will Workers Return to the Office? 

While some companies, including JPMorgan Chase, Salesforce, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, are ditching their office spaces, others anticipate a plan for returning to the office. According to a report by staffing firm LaSalle Network, a survey of more than 350 CEOs and human resources and finance leaders said that 70% plan to have employees back in the office by the fall of 2021.

Cristina Banks, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces at Berkeley University of California, doesn't believe we'll ever get back to normal without everyone being vaccinated. While employees may feel comforted to know their coworkers are vaccinated, requiring employees to receive the vaccine before returning to work is a slippery slope. There is no statute or judicial decision that specifically prohibits employers from requiring that employees be vaccinated. Even so, the federal government has not explicitly stated that employers can mandate the vaccine.

While compliance with federal, state, and local orders is mandatory, it's good to play it safe for the sake of employees. When returning to workplaces, the CDC recommends keeping on hand a mask, tissues and 60% alcohol hand sanitizer, if possible. Physical barriers and upholding social distancing practices may help workers feel at ease while trickling back into the workplace.

These Changes Are Here to Stay 

social distancing work

While many are rushing to return to work after COVID-19, some changes are here to stay. The benefits of remote work are the efficiencies and digital shifts that have given teams a holistic view of their projects. The days of paperwork and other dated practices are over, and going backwards in business practices doesn't make much sense.

After the pandemic, organizations may adopt a hybrid model of in-office and work-from-home setups – giving more flexibility to workers. Checking in on workers' well-being will be crucial for company culture and reducing employee burnout and turnover. Hand sanitizer will be at the ready everywhere, and employees will be more conscious of their physical and mental health and safety at work. 

Employees have been self-monitoring and working independently since March of 2020. They will want the same trust from their leaders when returning to their cubicles. Supervisor styles will shift to coaching instead of managing, and work relationships will be more partnership-based.

Returning to the Workplace Will Take Time

Returning to offices after COVID-19 will be an adjustment for employees and leaders alike. People want to feel safe and supported at work, and leaders will need insight into their teams' needs to provide that stability. Open and honest conversations will help ensure employees feel comfortable while heading back to the office. 

Employers are still figuring out how to move forward, and it will probably be some time before anyone has figured out what life will look like post-pandemic. Teams are at a time of resetting, and they will need a temperature check so they can benchmark where they are and determine what the biggest challenges and opportunities for growth are. Self-awareness and relationship management will be the glue that holds teams together in this time of transition.

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