Hybrid Work, In-Office Work, Remote Work

Schrödinger’s Return to Office Policy

Two and a half years into the pandemic, companies are still ‘assessing’ their return to work policies.

Let’s get ready for back to school season…but maybe not back to the office? It’s been a wild ride for companies figuring out remote work and the rise of hybrid work as a concept all while fighting with each other for talent in literally the tightest labor market ever recorded here in the US. And yet, two-and-a-half years into the pandemic, the official unofficial return to work policy for many companies is: we are assessing. Don’t worry about it, we’ll figure it out after this next variant, season, recession. It’s just over the horizon.

 

There have been so many false starts. After the initial shock in early 2020, companies started feeling a sense of euphoria from the fact that productivity didn’t grind to a half but generally shot through the roof. With vaccines coming out and folks hopeful for the summer break to return to form in 2021, the return to office was scheduled for the fall. It would be the time to stop interrupting regularly scheduled 9-5 M-F office programming with an urgent message from the CDC. The Delta variant waylaid all such plans and just when plans were fully reconstituted, Omicron forced reconsideration yet again at the beginning of 2022.

 

Spring this year seemed to be the ‘enough is enough’ moment for the back-to-the-office movement. The cat’s in the box or it isn’t – we have to take a look. Enough with sub variants and excuses – it’s time to push back to the office with the eminently reasonable compromise of having a 3-day work week. Beyond poorly defined and fuzzy phrases like ‘remote-first’ and ‘we are a hybrid company’, companies with talent pools full of knowledge workers who have the ability to work remotely – are headed into some clear categories when it comes to their office policy:

 

  • Unapologetically remote-friendly: My ex-employer Twitter stayed flexible early in the pandemic and then announced a ‘forever flexible’ model earlier this year in response to the waves of counter-moves at the time: wfh forever if that’s what you want (and if the Elon abides).
  • Basically remote-first: Airbnb is an example of a company that practices a flexible approach but with a few guard-rails (planned for in-person at least once a quarter starting 2023).
  • 3-days in: Apple and Google have tried to find the middle ground with 3-days in the office. After literal resignations in response to the policies though, they have walked it back.
  • We’re back baby: Over in financial services, guidance has been more strict – we’re coming back to the office. But even there, they’re having to walk it back as well (JP Morgan).

 

What about small businesses and mid-market startups and companies? In candid conversations, what I’m noticing with so many stakeholders is a “wait and see” policy. A policy that says we are being flexible and continuing to operate with infinite flexibility…but we are hybrid. Or will be. Or something. We are assessing.

If even they are announcing plans and changing them repeatedly in response to the response from the labor market, a simple wait and see approach may be best.

If anyone has policy making power to set new norms it is companies like Apple and Google. If even they are announcing plans and changing them repeatedly in response to the response from the labor market, a simple wait and see approach may be best. On top of that, we are all making adjustments almost with every single hire to get the right folks on board. Some folks may want to collaborate in person more often while others would prefer not to. In a tight labor market with emergent norms that are still in flux, keeping all options open just may be the most reasonable move.

 

I am really curious where you stand on this key issue. Have you and your company made a stand? Or are you still assessing two-years later?

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