For two years, companies have been grappling with the question: When are we going back to the office?
For some leaders and staff, the answer is simple: Never.
For others, it’s not so straightforward.
Time and again, enthusiastic plans to return en masse have been tripped up by new covid variants, updated government advice, and pushback from staff.
Before long, the question evolved from, “when will we go back?” to “what will go back to?” Should all employees be asked to return simultaneously, or should re-entry be staggered? Should full-time employees go back to a five-day office-based week? If not, how many days a week in the office is ideal? Four? Fewer?
Before the pandemic over 60% of employees surveyed by Cisco for its Hybrid Work Index report said they would prefer to work in an office for three days or more. Post-pandemic, that had fallen to just 19%, with the remainder wanting to work from home the majority of the time. The pressure is on for companies to respond to the demands of a workforce that, in a tight labour market, has more opportunity to move to places which offer flexibility.
Add to this the rise of the omicron variant which has companies again pivoting on their return to office plans while trying—in the US—to navigate further guidance from the CDC—and figuring out a return to office date becomes even more of a puzzle.
We asked three large organizations how they’re thinking about return to work now.
As chief operating officer for HSBC in the US, one of Jennifer Strybel’s jobs is to oversee the bank’s return-to-office policies for its American workforce.
At HSBC, a small percentage of the staff—like some traders, for example—have continued to go into the office throughout the pandemic, Strybel said, but the vast majority were invited to do so as they saw fit. A desk booking system was quickly put in place after covid-19 struck, to guard against people spreading the virus via the bank’s offices.
This allowed a few things to happen: HSBC workers could arrange to go into its offices in a socially distanced way, but the bank could also keep track of how its staff used the spaces, and use the information to plan ahead. “We wanted to make sure that we were leveraging data, and looking very objectively, rather than making more emotional or knee-jerk decisions around how we brought people safely back to the office,” Strybel said.
Like many companies, HSBC spotted patterns around who wanted to go to the office and why. The whys included things like collaboration and training and, especially for younger staff, mentoring opportunities and spending time with colleagues.
But HSBC also picked up on what employees needed to stay happy and motivated while working from home.
“Sometimes people are sitting at their kitchen table and their computer is less than five feet away and they have a hard time separating work from home,” said Strybel. That has led to changes in the work day, like HSBC’s decision during the summer to free Friday afternoons from meetings so employees could reflect on their week, wind down, and plan the week to come—an experiment which Strybel said many teams had continued.
From the outset of the pandemic, our employees “did right by the organization and our customers,” she said. A return to the bank’s office-centric practices would fail to acknowledge the trust employees had earned or reward them for it with increased autonomy, she said.
The future will be diverse and hybrid, Strybel said. “We as an organization will continue to embrace flexible working.”
With this in mind, the bank is experimenting with a redesign of its US spaces, starting with a pilot at its office on Fifth Avenue in New York. Instead of having “desk farms,” Strybel said, the bank is looking at different spatial arrangements and furniture designed for collaborative work, and planning to trial changes with staff over the next six months.
HSBC does not have a company-wide vaccine mandate for its US staff. Instead, it follows local rules on both vaccines and masks. (In New York City, for example, all employees working in the city must have had at least one shot.) For HSBC’s unvaccinated employees elsewhere in the US there is a testing policy in place, and masks are required at all times when in the office. For the fully vaccinated, masks are required in public spaces, but not when sitting at a desk in a socially distanced manner.
Of course, this could all change: HSBC had been preparing for a US-wide vaccine mandate before it was blocked earlier this month.
Salesforce currently operates a hybrid model of office and distributed work, and intends to keep it that way, in part because staff are demanding it.
That may come as no surprise for a company that sells software for digital team management. In Dec. 2020, the company bought Slack, valuing the collaboration software firm at $27.7 billion.
Steve Pickle, Salesforce’s executive vice president for people strategy and operations globally, said the company has seen a 16% increase in productivity since the pandemic forced many staff to work from home. Since the Slack acquisition and its subsequent internal promotion, “We’ve driven down email use by 46 percent,” Pickle said, which he said indicates changes in work practices like a deeper focus on real-time collaboration.
This isn’t to say Salesforce no longer needs offices. Indeed, management is encouraging staff to return where and when possible, if it’s useful for them, and so long as they’re vaccinated. (“But that doesn’t mean that people can’t work successfully outside the office if they’re uncomfortable with providing that information for some reason,” Pickle said.) When it comes to masks, the company follows local guidelines, but when the circumstances allow—for example among vaccinated workers in jurisdictions that don’t mandate them—they don’t use masks.
So-called “flex team agreements,” developed during the pandemic, allow each team to create its own working structure based on its own needs. A tech team that uses Scrum, for example, might need to ensure its Scrum master’s working hours overlap with the time zones of the rest of the team. Or maybe not: “We’re now hiring in a much more flexible way,” Pickle said, describing a hiring strategy that now places much less weight on where a person is geographically located.
Certainly Salesforce is looking ahead to a time when in-person connection is possible, said Pickle. He pointed to opportunities to strengthen company culture through “events and gatherings” and “the every day-to-day interactions between a manager and their employee, for example.”
“In terms of how do we continue to evolve our culture, keep it strong, keep it distinctive, keep it a source of real strength for our people?” Pickle said. “You can’t do it all virtually… You need that in-person connection to augment [the digital.] And so it’s all about finding the right mix.”
Still, the desire for flexibility and remote work is palpable, Pickle said, pointing to a personal example of repeatedly missing parent-teacher conferences because he couldn’t get from office to school in time for them. That wouldn’t happen to staff any more, he said.
When the pandemic hit, and IBM moved 95% of its workforce to fully remote, it was pleasantly surprised to discover no drop in productivity, said Joanne Wright, vice president for enterprise operations and services.
Still, they planned to return to offices, and by the summer of 2021, Wright said, it felt like things were opening up. Then things changed again: With the omicron variant raging through Europe and the US, “We’re back to not a lot of people in the offices, but when in the offices, masks are required,” she said. In Asia, by contrast, things are starting to feel more similar to before the pandemic struck, she said.
As Wright tells it, IBM decided to take the pandemic as a business opportunity “to accelerate our technology use in our return to the workplace.”
The company saw this as a way to keep employees safe, “while infusing IBM’s capabilities into how we manage our physical space,” she said. One example is how the company now uses its TRIRIGA tool to manage collaboration space and office cleaning, among other things. Another is its development of the IBM Digital Health Pass as an alternative to vaccine cards or paper vaccine certificates, which they use to make sure all the staff that come into their offices are vaccinated.
Arvind Krishna, IBM’s CEO, meanwhile came up with what he called the IBM Work From Home Pledge, which he shared on LinkedIn in May 2020.
“I do think that that was a game changer for us,” Wright said, in that it created “a very important social contract” for all IBM’s staff, no matter where they were working. The pledge included commitments to flexibility, kindness, sensitivity to family, setting boundaries, and acknowledged video fatigue. It concluded with a commitment to “be connected,” which Krishna elaborated in his post was a promise “to create social interactions virtually, with my co-workers. Whether it is a coffee break, happy hour, game night or karaoke party, or something else, I will find ways to stay connected.”
Does IBM look forward to a time when its staff are physically together again? “We do. We do,” said Wright, suggesting that the future for IBM would be a hybrid working model. “I think we’re thinking of those days where you can be very productive working at home. And then those days where you want to be with your colleagues or clients collaborating and innovating.”
“What we’re seeing is people want to come back, but they want to come back and collaborate with each other, engage with each other,” Wright said. “What we’re using our workplace for has changed quite drastically.”
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