One of the most notable impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic for millions of Americans has been the widespread shift to remote work. The virtually overnight shift has been a tremendous logistical challenge for employees and employers alike.
Despite many employers’ worst fears, companies across a variety of industries have reported that productivity hasn’t taken a huge hit. Employees also overwhelmingly prefer working remotely. And companies have the potential to save significant amounts of money on overhead, office expenses, and other costs with a remote workforce.
Nevertheless, some employers are chomping at the bit to get their workers back into the office. In this feature, we look at some of the reasons for this eagerness, including teambuilding, creative collaboration, and others. We also include input from business leaders and HR experts.
Perhaps the most obvious impact of remote work is on teamwork. While there are great technologies available to help remote teams engage with one another, it’s hard to fully simulate the real-world office environment.
“I believe bringing employees back into the office will help us get back to better teamwork,” says Greg Corey, founder and principal of Porchlight, an Atlanta-based design agency specializing in packaging, brand identity, and digital marketing. “Even though our team can work from home and, in most cases, it works really well, I have seen instances where we miss breakroom and hallway conversations that lead to a more informed team,” he says.
In addition, Corey says he has observed younger team members asking for extra support from leadership because they’re not getting that support from other more senior team members in the remote environment. This, he says, “is putting extra pressure on the leaders and stunting the growth of the seniors.”
Closely related to teamwork is the ability to collaborate effectively with team members. Seemingly small logistical aspects of in-person work, like being able to draw up ideas on a whiteboard, can have significant impacts on the efficiency and flow of work in the office.
“While our team has proven that we’re able to make incredible progress and work effectively from home, I don’t anticipate that we’ll ever see a total disappearance of in-person workplace culture,” says Eric Wu, cofounder and COO of Gainful. “Call me old school, but I am still a firm believer in the importance of in-person collaboration,” he says.
Wu adds he has also received feedback from his team that “people are feeling cooped up after many months at home and are looking forward to coming into the office at least a few days per week—even before a vaccine is widely available—provided we take all necessary safety precautions.”
While employees generally prefer the freedom and flexibility of working from home, the story isn’t as simple or as one-sided as that. Employees also tend to enjoy their in-person collaboration with coworkers.
After all, many people spend half their waking lives with their coworkers and have developed strong bonds and lasting relationships that have been severed by the shift to remote work. Some, like Addison Group CEO Thomas Moran, believe this will be a major reason many companies bring staff back to the office as soon as is safe and feasible.
“Many believe the future of work is remote. I contend that might not be the right answer and won’t happen,” says Moran. He predicts that, as the COVID-19 vaccine takes hold, people will welcome a return to the office to be with their colleagues. “While the pandemic may have taught us just how resilient we can be working remotely for an extended period via Zoom conference calls, it is not sustainable,” he says. “Humans are a social species and ultimately need that direct, in-person contact and connection with one another.”
These personal, face-to-face connections, he says, are the best way to build team chemistry and be productive. That kind of camaraderie, he says, simply can’t be achieved through other means, however technologically advanced they may be.
Additionally, many employees feel like they’re going a bit stir-crazy at home, particularly with many of their favorite social venues closed and many having the added stress of small children and both parents spending all their time at home.
Moreover, returning to some semblance of normalcy—at least with respect to work—may help to alleviate some of the anxiety many employees are experiencing amid all the chaos of the last year.
A Potentially Reluctant Workforce
Still, despite ongoing isolation, many employees are likely to be reluctant to return to the office, regardless of their employers’ intensions. Some business leaders, like Wu, believe staff will eventually decide they crave the in-person collaboration that comes with being in the office.
But, as noted above, employees overwhelmingly prefer working from home compared with going into the office. And now that they’ve had a taste of that lucrative arrangement once available only to a select few, it’ll be a hard sell to get them to go back.
“The biggest barrier is going to be that people in general don’t like change,” says Corey. “After working from home for a year, it’s going to be difficult for them to want to change again,” he says.
From an individual employee perspective, he says, working from home has worked; they’re likely not considering the impact on the overall team or organization. In addition, he says, “From an employee’s viewpoint, working from home has worked for them, but I’m sure they’re not necessarily thinking of the entire agency or team.”
Another barrier, says Corey, is that not all employees will want to get the vaccine even as it becomes available. “That in itself is a problem as then I need to decide if getting the vaccine would be a requirement or just strongly encouraged,” he says.
Despite promising developments with the COVID-19 vaccine, the world likely remains months away from getting back to a true sense of normalcy. And, even though companies have largely experienced better-than-expected productivity during the forced shift to remote work, many companies remain eager to get their staff back to the office.
These ambitions, though, need to be tempered by the variations in comfort level and personal preferences among employees. There is not likely going to be a “one size fits all” solution, even within individual companies.