Why Companies Are Having a Hard Time Returning to the Office

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With a new year came new attempts to return to work as we knew it pre-pandemic — together again back in the office. Despite the new year, return-to-work efforts continue to crash into the same old roadblocks. Although many companies launched a post-Delta full-court press to get their employees back into the office this winter, one back-to-work mandate after another crashed and burned.

No matter which side of the employee/employer dynamic you find yourself on, you’d be wise to plan to wait for a return to office life.

Learn: Want To Work From Home? These Are the Hottest Remote Jobs Right Now Find: Small Business Owners Say Remote Work Made Them Better Team Leaders

2 Years of Build-Up and Retreat Has Exhausted People and Budgets

Since the original shutdowns of 2020, businesses have been trapped in an endless and expensive cycle of building up to a return to the office, only to be stymied by new coronavirus strains, new shutdowns and new employee mutinies.

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In chronicling just how futile mandatory return-to-office directives have become, the New York Times told the story of DocuSign. The company tried not one, not two, but four times to force its 7,000-strong workforce back to the office. Delay after delay after delay sowed confusion and resentment among its already anxious employees, distracted the company from its business agenda and wasted countless dollars.

Far from an outlier, the story of DocuSign is par for the course.

“It will make more sense for businesses to wait due to the pandemic,” said Tim Connon, founder of Paramount Quote Insurance Advisors. “The Omicron variant has shifted the field for people and, until more information is known about COVID and its variants, it makes more sense to wait and stay out of contact with workers. I think it will be at least another year before workers return to the office.”

Omicron Wasn’t the Last of It

The biggest return-to-work obstacle is, of course, the virus and its endless parade of new Greek alphabet variants. There are still 130,000 infections and 2,000 COVID deaths per day. The pandemic is far from over and, according to Fortune, premature office openings are part of a dangerous new complacency that could extend the national suffering even more.

There is simply no indication that the pandemic will end any time soon, and it’s almost impossible to find a single credible expert who is on record as saying that Omicron will be the last variant.

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See: Accelerated Hiring, More Remote Work and 3 Other Major Changes Experts Predict for the Job Market in 2022

“Vaccines are not 100% protection against the virus; and, if people put their guards down, the restrictions might start all over again,” said Connor Brown, founder of After School Finance. “As a business owner, I believe it is more effective if we wait a little longer before going back to the office.

“If your company survived the pandemic by working in a remote setting, why go back to an onsite work setting? When you go back, you are just putting your employees at risk, which will also put your operations in danger. When your operations suffer, your productivity will be lessened. You might not be able to meet deadlines with your clients, thus negatively impacting your reputation in the business world. That being the case, instead of increasing profit, it will be the other way around. Now, would you want to go back to an onsite work setting?”

Corralling Newly Liberated Remote Workers Is No Easy Task

When trying to command workers back to the office after they’ve tasted the freedom of working from anywhere, employers would be wise to consider the very real potential of a mutiny. 

“It’s not even exclusively about COVID,” said Juan Dominguez, CEO of The Dominguez Firm in Los Angeles. “Many employees have grown comfortable with remote and hybrid settings, and some even consider that flexibility to be a dealbreaker when deciding whether to remain in their jobs or not. Companies will definitely face some pushback from at least a few workers, should they decide to go back to the office.”

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Amazon employees went public against the idea of going back to the office when the company announced its intentions to return to on-site work. Google employees threatened to quit if they were required to return — and in a lot of cases, they wouldn’t have had a choice. Many simply moved away once they began working remotely and had no intention of ever returning.

A Growing Crowd of Heavyweights Is Staying Home

The corporate world took heed as Google and Amazon workers publicly rebuffed their bosses. Post-Great Resignation, it was naive to expect remote employees to come back home once they had tasted life outside the nest. Other tech giants took note of how quickly a simmer became a boil and wisely elected not to stir the same pot among their own fragile workforces.

Zillow, Twitter, Meta, Lyft, Microsoft and Dropbox all shelved plans for mandatory returns, and some of them are now letting their employees work remotely indefinitely. Lyft employees can keep working from home through 2022, pushing back its February 2022 deadline by almost a full year.

“You need to understand that we are now in the era of the employees,” said Burak Ozdemir, founder of Alarm Journal. “They’ve already tasted a different way of working and a different way of getting their job done — and most of them liked it. Therefore, the power now lies in their hands. Companies will have to adapt to the demands of their employees or else they’ll lose their top talents. And since the name of the game is retaining top workers, winning simply means letting your people work remotely.”

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About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.
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