As Covid cases drop and vaccinations rise, we are finally beginning to see the light at the end of this very long pandemic. And the prospect of returning to the office appears more possible for millions of workers that have been remote for more than a year. But the truth, is the workplace as we knew it might be forever changed, and employers should think twice before forcing a return to office life.
The past 14 months have been traumatic in some way or another for almost every person on this planet. We have experienced a global pandemic that flipped people’s lives upside down practically overnight, a social justice movement addressing systemic racism, racist attacks against Asian Americans, a tumultuous presidential election, a riot at the U.S. Capitol, and millions of deaths worldwide.
It is most likely an understatement to say that many have struggled through mental health challenges and traumatic events associated with the pandemic. These challenges range from losing a loved one to depression, anxiety, and even rusty social skills. The CDC reported that the number of adults with recent anxiety or depressive disorder symptoms increased from 36.4 in August 2020 to 41.5% in January 2021.
Not to mention, people have had to make significant changes to their day-to-day lives to accommodate all that came along with this worldwide pandemic. They added workspaces to their homes, shifted their work schedules around the needs of their families, found ways to achieve a new work/life balance, and some have even moved. As a result, people have grown accustomed to an entirely new way of life, and asking employees to jump right back in and return to office life would be a grave mistake.
Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, told the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, “There is no going back to pre-COVID times. There is only forward—to a new and uncertain future that is currently presenting us with an opportunity for thoughtful design.”
Many major companies have already put plans in place to bring employees back into the office. To name a few, Uber and Microsoft have already opened their doors, and companies such as Facebook and Ford Motor Company may open their doors in early summer. But Microsoft’s chief people officer Kathleen Hogan shared with CNBC that companies should have “a really good reason why it’s really important for people to be in the office 9-5.”
Frankly, whether companies like it or not, the “virtualization” of work is here to stay. Work-from-home models have been a thing long before Covid came along. And with the advancement of technology such as cloud computing, broadband connectivity, apps like Slack, and video conferencing, working virtually is becoming more and more of a viable, long-term option for employees.
And study after study has shown that work-from-home employees show an increase in productivity. For example, a study by Stanford University found that working from home increases productivity by 13%. The study also found that remote workers reported improved work satisfaction. Another study by Airtasker concluded that, on average, remote employees worked 1.4 more days every month than those that work in an office.
Moreover, there are many advantages for companies to keep their employees virtual. Organizations can reduce or eliminate costs associated with office space, broaden their talent pool across the globe without having to deal with the challenge of immigration, and benefit from the productivity gains from their employees.
Companies also need to consider the legalities that may come along with requiring employees to return to the office full time after the Covid-19 crisis. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, companies need to be aware of laws that protect employees and regulate some of what companies can and cannot do concerning screening for Covid-19 and collecting medical information in the Americans Disability Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws. And let’s not forget safety protocols and CDC guidelines that need to be put in place before employees can safely return to the office life.
Of course, there are some advantages to employees returning to the office. Being able to have face-to-face time and socialize with coworkers is irreplaceable. It’s also easier to train, mentor and manage employees when they are in the office. And it is much less complicated to keep important company data secure in an office than in multiple remote locations.
Nevertheless, I think that both employers and employees can admit that the workplace is forever changed. And due to technological advancements, social and cultural shifts, and changes in how people physically interact with each other, remote working no longer carries the stigma that it used to. And many employees are expressing the desire to continue to work virtually. So, employers need to get on board with making working from home a long-term possibility for more people in the workforce.