Credit: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images
May 24, 2022 7:00 AM EDT

There is no greater proof of the uncertain times we live in than the constantly changing status of return-to-office plans. Last year, as many companies punted their return date yet again, a New York Times headline optimistically forecast: “July is the new January…” Then January brought Omicron, and April brought its BA.2 subvariant and sublineage BA 2.12.

And so, for organizations that haven’t already gone fully remote, the waiting game continues, and worker frustration mounts. The state of Virginia just summoned its employees back by July and laid out complex levels of approvals they must secure to work from home one, two, or more days per week (from their agency head, cabinet secretary, and the governor’s chief of staff, respectively). Apple, meanwhile, modified its return-to-work policies last week amid employees’ outcries to stay hybrid and growing cases of Covid-19.

Out of the spotlight of the press or scrutiny of their own staff, some managers are fearful that decisions made during the pandemic are irreversible and might have unforeseen consequences on the way a workplace runs. To better capture this sentiment, I spoke with an executive who has been making decisions over when, if, and how their workforce ever returns to the office.

This person, a member of the C suite of a professional-services firm who’s been with the company for about a decade, spoke on condition of anonymity to share experiences about the employer and its employees. Here’s what they said about what they’re wrestling with, in their own words, edited for space and clarity.

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If I were going to make one plea or request to the world, it would be for grace and the benefit of the doubt. Everybody’s just trying their best. We want to do the right thing by our employees. We want to do the right thing for the company overall. And it’s really unclear what the right thing is.

It very much seems to depend on where you sit, what day it is, and what article you recently read. We revisit this subject on a regular basis and have yet to reach a clear, focused consensus. So we remain split as an executive team about what to do.

We are under 1,000 people. The company traditionally was heavily weighted towards in-person. The occasional person would have a little bit of flexibility to work from home for a day and, periodically, we would have trusted employees who were relocating for personal reasons and we would grant them remote status, but we were always hesitant to do it. We liked having people in person.

During Covid, we shut down and went fully remote. Two years later, we have told people that we will remain remote by individual preference. So right now, anybody who wants to be remote can be. We do have office space and we have welcomed people back to the office, but not many have been coming in.

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On culture

One person recently asked us in a town hall: What’s your goal? What are we trying to solve for? The company has been doing well; remote work has not seemed to hurt our bottom line. We have grave concerns, though.

One is engagement. How long can you trade on the culture you established when you were in the office before you need to be building and contributing to that culture remotely? How do you build a compelling culture remotely?

Our mid- to senior-level folks probably have the networks and have the expertise, and they’re very comfortable working from home, as are those who have small children and other personal responsibilities that are better supported by flexibility. Once we leveled the playing field and everybody was online, those people got a chance to shine. I’ve seen some really nice stories of those careers regaining trajectory after being a bit sidelined.

In contrast, though, we have a lot of junior people who are not getting the benefit of spending informal time with the mid-level and senior managers. Yet they want to be remote.

On average, the majority of people seem to want to be remote when we survey them. But are they as engaged? Will they stay? If you look into the future three to five years from now, what does the company look like? If you factor in our turnover rate and the number of people who will never have worked together in person, how sustainable is that?

We have gone to a work-from-anywhere policy, which only further complicates everything. We want to access a wider talent pool, but now how do we have conversations about coming back if it doesn’t include everybody? What are the implications for the people that we’ve hired who are out of state? We also had a significant number of people move out of state during the pandemic.

So now you’re also balancing more considerations: How do you make those people still feel like they are part of everything? No matter how you run the numbers, flying people in is super expensive. And that is not something we have the budget for. I favored a world where if you moved out of state on your own or are far away from clients, then you would be primarily responsible for paying travel costs. That was not very popular with my head of HR. I didn’t win that battle. There’s an intangible value to being in the room together, but it’s a lot of money, airfare, hotel, Ubers.

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On productivity

Are people working as hard? Nobody wants to say that out loud.

We reduced our real-estate footprint by about a third and there’s still just a lot of empty space right now. When I’m in the office, there’s not a lot of people. It feels like I came in to just do a Zoom call.

I recently attended an in-person meeting and I loved it. It was great. There are still things that are fun to talk about in-person and we were doing a lot of brainstorming. The time went by like that, and on a Zoom call, it just doesn’t.

People are also taking meetings in different locations because they’re traveling, or they’re with their kids because they wanted to get out of their house for a little while and have rented a house someplace else. I have colleagues who decided to go stay in a different state for a month, rent a house in the mountains on a beach, that kind of thing. There’s no reason they can’t work remotely productively. That feels a little different to me than taking a work call from a museum visit in the middle of the day.

But I can’t get away from the inescapable reality that there’s still a hit to productivity. It was so scary the first six months of the pandemic and everybody just wanted to keep their job. Now, people are multitasking too much.

On work-life boundaries

What are the limits of flexibility?

We had a new employee start who announced that there was one day a week they don’t work. And they said, “You told me how flexible you were. I have other things I like to do on this particular day of the week.”

This is a person who’s still onboarding. We’re not even in a space where you tell me you are just so good and efficient at your job, and you’re willing to work longer days for four days to have a fifth day off. That’s not the situation. I can keep my mind open to that. This is a situation where somebody is still learning their job.

There is an awakened questioning of how we live our lives. For a more experienced person, it might be trying to rebalance to a better quality of life. For a newer person, we’ve tried to abandon such rigidity in what work looks like.

But now people are renegotiating everywhere. Boundaries are being tested all over the place. I’ve been an employee long enough to argue the workplace was probably out of whack and companies did have too much power, and the employees should have a voice. But also: Companies exist to make money.

There’s a level of distrust that employees have for their organizations, almost like an old dated image of like fat cats sitting around counting their money. People are frustrated by certain circumstances of their lives and it’s the natural condition to want more. But there seems to be less empathy. Everybody’s trying their best. There’s just no trust that you’re trying your best.

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