While it's a decline from the 71 percent of employees who worked from home in October 2020, it's still more than two-and-a-half times more than those who teleworked frequently before March 2020. And yet, as the spike in cases from the omicron variant continues its downward trajectory, companies large and small are asking employees to come back to the office either full time or part time. American Express, BNC Mellon, Citibank, Ford Motor Co. and Google, among many others, have implemented return-to-office policies.
The disconnect—between what employees said they prefer versus what companies are asking them to do—is creating friction. Figuring out how to bring people back without hard feelings (or too much complaining) is going to take some work.
Earthbound Brands, a product design and licensing firm in New York City, is on the other side of this journey. The company started bringing employees back to the office in June 2021 using a slow, phased approach, said Michelle Corbett, the company's director of people. Teams were split into two groups: Half of the employees went into the office on Mondays and Tuesdays while the other half went in on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
"For us, the important factors were making sure that when you were there, you were achieving different goals than when you were at home," Corbett said. "We're primarily a design organization, so we have industrial designers, graphic designers, textile designers, apparel designers—it's a very tactile group. And they are constantly looking at samples or building inspiration walls or printing on large-format printers. A lot of the work really needs to be done in the office."
The need to have people in the office was so great that management decided to expand the return-to-work plan, making coming into the office Monday through Wednesday mandatory and allowing people to work remotely Thursday and Friday if they wanted to.
"We shifted the workflow of certain meetings to accommodate that in-person schedule. And then we found that it was really good to have people sort of wind down their week at home so that they knew there was that balance of the team time as well as … individual time," Corbett said.
This gradual return to office was accompanied by "lots of communication," she said. Employees were informed of why the decisions were made, and feedback was solicited from everyone along the way. The company also pulled back on its plan when omicron spiked in the area, sending people home from mid-December 2021 until Jan. 31, 2022.
This strategy is one of three options that Taylor Griffin, chief operating officer of The Miles Group consulting firm in New York City, suggested that human resource professionals consider when plotting a return-to-work strategy. Not every plan will be palatable for every employer.
"[You can] take a hard line on returning and deal with the noise up front and let it settle down; create significantly more clarity on what hybrid will mean and look like in the organization; or let the environment play out while employees have a lot of power—voluntary models," Griffin said. "It will likely course-correct over time because the lack of being in person will have increasing impacts."