Why Your Workers Won’t Be Returning to the Office

By Rick Pastore
May 18, 2020

Sorry, there will be no return to pre-coronavirus, everyone-working-from-the-office normality. HR leaders, CIOs, finance chiefs, and procurement/supply-chain leaders tell us it’s not going to happen. The reason: It doesn’t make sense. The coronavirus disruption has proven, even to managers that had been biased against telecommuting, that many people can get their jobs done just as effectively from their domiciles. In fact, several SG&A leaders have told us that the newly homebound have been more productive than they were in the office. So much so that there is a danger of burnout because so many employees find it difficult to break away from their screens. Instead of riding staff to meet deadlines, managers are urging employees to block out “no-meeting” times on their calendars and to take breaks.

According to a poll of HR leaders conducted by The Hackett Group last month, three-times as many workers across the enterprise will permanently work from home going forward, compared to prior to the crisis. Only one out of 20 IT leaders I’ve interviewed in the past four weeks expects enterprise staff will return to the office in full force – in that one case, it is because of a stubborn preference of the company’s owner-founders. This is a US-centric perspective, and favors hard-hit cities and states.

Rather, most of our clients tell us there is just no sense in bringing staff back to the office environment, at least not in the near term. Many employees are still scared for their health. Office environments are not conducive to social distancing. True, companies and building owners will have to invest in COVID-certified safety measures and retrofitting physical space to enable distancing. In hard-hit states, protocols will likely require six feet of separation and the wearing of masks in tighter quarters. Not exactly conducive to productive interaction, let alone water cooler banter. Meetings will be limited to maybe fewer than five people, given the size of most corporate meeting rooms, and the rest of the participants will be – yup, calling in on Teams or Zoom. So why bother?

What about collaboration and innovation? You can’t whiteboard in a Zoom meeting. Or can you? There are many virtual whiteboard solutions, some with integration into other systems. One CIO’s team used Stormboard and Zoom to rapidly work out a way for hospital clinicians to adjust patient medical device settings remotely using an iPad. This allowed them to avoid entering infected patients’ rooms multiple times a day just to make adjustments. Creative collaboration does work remotely.

What about managing by walking around? How can conscientious managers assess their team members’ state of mind, stress levels, unvoiced needs, etc., if they are all in separate places? This is definitely harder in a virtual work environment, but most IT leaders already have experience doing so with team members that worked remotely pre-pandemic. Even the CIO at a company with mainly onsite IT staff told me he has learned to read employees during their video interactions. “I see myself noticing things in video, behaviors and stress-related actions. We’re training ourselves in a new skill to understand people through video.” Influencing and leading through video is also something managers are learning to do, the CIO says. Once business leaders get some practice in leading remotely, they’ll develop the muscle memory that will eventually make it second nature.

If companies want knowledge workers to resume intolerable commutes and navigate our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, they need to give them a compelling reason. The one we see most often is access to specialty equipment that can’t be easily replicated at home. These include R&D tools, equipment for testing emerging tech, high-end art and design tools, and certain data not practical to manipulate from home.

Futurist Thornton May says offices should evolve into dedicated creative spaces. “The new work environment actually becomes the [Star Trek] holodeck, where walls are basically screens and you bring all the data and the research together, with the help of high-bandwidth connectivity,” May says. He likens the evolution of office space to shopping malls, which have tried to attract people with digital play spaces. “I see that model rolling over into commercial real estate.” It’s already happening – in our poll, 24% of IT leaders say their office environments will be redesigned for group creativity and innovation.

I’m not arguing that the shift to work from home is all upside. The commercial real estate market could crash as leases expire and companies act to shrink their footprint. (Others predict companies will simply spread out over existing space, reducing people density.) Office building cafeterias and restaurants that cater to lunch crowds may lay off staff or shut down.

The tendency to stay home comes with a less apparent dark side and threat for IT as well. Nearly all IT leaders we polled expect an ongoing fluid mix of workers coming into the office AND working from home, depending on the nature of their current assignments. The consequence of this will be the challenge of knowing where your employees are on any given day. One technology solution is real-time tracking of employees.

It is a virtual certainty that most companies will task IT with implementing some sort of remote worker productivity monitoring system. In fact, 46% of IT leaders say they are already working on this.

This raises the obvious specter of Big Brother. If monitoring and tracking are not planned and introduced with a careful blend of logic and diplomacy, there could be an employee backlash. Planning of any such system will require involvement of HR, legal, compliance, the chief privacy officer, the CEO, cybersecurity, public relations. CIOs would do best to hold back until company leadership figures out how to make this not only legal but morally palatable.

I don’t want to speculate too much on what happens if businesses insist that workers return to the physical office and a new wave of infection results. It’s not hard to foresee liability issues. There could be irreparable loss of employee trust. And there might be bad press and public outrage. All of this is material, but not nearly so much as the real heart of the matter—people getting sick and dying. That is why most of our clients say they are in no hurry to return workers to the office. Even if the president or governor or the CDC gives the OK, they say they will wait. It’s just not worth the risk.