Return To Work Guide

What Is Return to Work and Why Is It So Important to Get Right?

After an overnight adjustment to remote work and a year-long ‘few weeks’ working from home, it’s finally time for organizations around the world to return to work.

Return to work describes the reopening of offices that were closed due to the pandemic, with companies allowing employees to once again work from their workplace, rather than continuing to work from home. 

And with every US citizen made eligible for vaccination on April 19, it’s imperative that the organizations that moved to fully remote work start to think about their next step and whether they want a full return to work. 

Is it best to stay fully remote, reopen offices at a reduced capacity for those who wish to return, or revert to full-time office work? Returning to work after COVID-19 is by no means simple, so it’s important to take the time to figure out what’s going to work best for your teams.

While some well-known companies anticipate that employees may now expect or at least favor more opportunities to work from home, others have disagreed that a return to work is the best way forward. 

Companies such as Facebook, Salesforce, and Google have decided to hold off on their employees going back to the office after working remotely until at least summer 2021. However, Google has already started accelerating its return to work and placed limits on working from home.

Similarly, Netflix’s Co-CEO says he sees the impact of working from home as ‘purely negative’ — their employees will be expected to return to work full-time six months after a vaccine. Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, and Amazon all intend on re-embracing office cultures and reopening by the fall of 2021.

Meanwhile, Twitter and Slack have decided to offer indefinite remote work to their employees in place of a full, company-wide return to work. Simply put, it’s a tough decision to make — one that relies on a lot of individual factors.

So, what are the advantages of going back to the office?

What are the benefits of return-to-work?

Although the advantages of working remotely have been well-documented (better communication, productivity, access to talent, and lower costs, to name a few), the practice inevitably comes with disadvantages, too. Here are the benefits of offering a return to work option for your employees:

It creates better focus

As computer science professor Cal Newport told The New York Times, our new ‘always-on’ work culture not only makes us unproductive but also miserable. Essentially, having a non-stop barrage of communication from our colleagues makes it difficult to concentrate on tasks and leaves us more anxious.

How does return to work help to tackle this? 

It’s estimated that 42% of workers miss the regular daily structure of an office. Studies show that environments we associate solely with a particular task (such as a busy intersection) can help drown out distractions. Our brains associate workplaces with work, but our homes are linked to many different distractions.

It increases work/life balance

Working from home has come with such a clear challenge that we have created a name for it — pandemic burnout. According to Bloomberg, working from home has added approximately three hours a day to our workday — potentially because of our lowered ability to block out distractions in our home, as described above.

How does return to work help to tackle this? 

Not only does working from home tend to end in logging more hours, but it also removes the 26 minutes each way that the average American spends commuting. Research at Columbia Business School found that commutes actually provide opportunities for accelerated learning, job satisfaction, and exercise.

It fosters better collaboration and communication

According to research by The Institute of Leadership and Management, a shocking 88% of distributed workers say they struggle with miscommunication (with 83% citing that they are overwhelmed by email). In fact, face-to-face meetings have been estimated to generate around three more ideas than remote meetings on average.

How does return to work help to tackle this? 

Deciding to return to work after COVID (at the very least, part-time) enables more opportunities for cross-team communication, informal information sharing and meetings, and more effective team building and relationship-building with colleagues and clients.

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It decreases loneliness for employees

Even pre-pandemic, 70% of employees cited workplace friendships as the most crucial element to having a happy working life. Unfortunately, the first emerging studies on full-time virtual socializing by the University of California have found that the frequency of video calls has no significant positive impact on wellbeing.  

How does return to work help to tackle this? 

Going back to the office after working remotely decreases loneliness significantly by enabling employees to have in-person social interactions with an entire office full of people during their working hours, rather than just their household.

It limits technology issues

Not only does remote work open companies up to increased security risks due to issues such as varying WiFi setups and multiple location downloads, but it also creates an opportunity for cybercriminals. Some 41% of businesses experienced at least one cyberattack related to the pandemic. Plus, not every employee has access to sufficient WiFi connectivity.

How does return to work help to tackle this? 

The reality is that remote work caused overall internet speeds to decrease around the US. A return to work means that companies can provide each employee with the high-speed internet, stronger network security, and in-person IT support that they need to do their best work. Essentially, it lowers the likelihood that technology will hinder their ability to work.

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What are the challenges of return-to-work?

Safety concerns will be paramount

According to an extensive survey of 54,000 workers by IBM, 68% say they are more concerned than ever about their families’ safety and health. Their top concerns about a return to work include healthy hygiene and sanitation (66%), enforcement of social distancing (53%), face coverings (48%), and health tests (42%).

What’s the best way to tackle this during a return to work?

Each company will need to consider many aspects for a safe return back to work. This may include everything from reorganizing the office to enable maximum levels of social distancing, consideration of rapid testing, or putting guidelines in place for rules around face coverings, disinfecting, and illness reporting. For more, take a look at our return-to-work guidelines

Costs may need to be recalculated

A vital consideration of returning to work after COVID-19 is that the overheads you once paid for office space may not still be necessary. A Harvard Business School Online survey found that 81% of workers either don’t want to return to work in the office or prefer a hybrid working model. You’ll need to reassess how much space you’ll need and whether it’s time to downsize before your employees return to work.

What’s the best way to tackle this during a return to work?

The most simple advice stands here — ask your employees. Think about launching an internal survey to find out exactly what your employees’ preferences are, their concerns about returning, and what puts them off full-time remote work. Then you can crunch the numbers and make informed financial decisions about the return to work costs.

Companies will need to offer flexibility

If the majority don’t intend to return to work in an office full-time, companies will need to work out their hybrid working offer. It’s estimated that the majority (61%) will want to go back to the office 2-3 days a week, but companies may need to consider flexible working too, outside of the 9-5. We’ll cover this later in the guide. For more, take a look at our advice around flexible working.

What’s the best way to tackle this during a return to work?

Again, you’ll need to consider employees’ expectations around returning to work after COVID-19. This may entail a survey or considering what is offered by other companies within your industry. However, as the vast majority of employees don’t want to return to work full-time, flexible and hybrid working may become a competitive advantage for attracting talent.

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Management will need to invest planning time

Unfortunately, IBM found that only one in four workers trust their employers to make informed, ethical decisions around a return to work that considers the economy and human health. The more two-way communication, the more trust your employees will have, so all communication and plans must be made clear. 

What’s the best way to tackle this during a return to work?

Once you’ve ascertained employees’ needs, it’s advised that you communicate your return to work plan ahead of time. Communication should include return-to-work guidelines, important dates, and options for those who inevitably do not feel safe or simply do not want to return to work in the office.

Emotional support must be considered

The most recent research by the American Psychological Association found that nearly half (49%) of Americans feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interactions once the pandemic is over, with no significant decrease after vaccination. Anxiety around return to work is widespread, and employers must take this into account in their planning.

What’s the best way to tackle this during a return to work?

This unease will impact everything from potential business travel to in-person team-building events to the day-to-day of whether employees want to return to work at all. Again, a two-way line of conversation is key here — companies must take great care to provide support and understanding to those who feel unsafe.

Further reading:
blog post

How To Connect With Co-Workers You Haven’t Actually Met

blog post

How to Know What Way of Working Is Best for You