Hybrid work

When it comes to office reopening, communication is key

We look at two companies on different ends of the reopening spectrum, identifying several common pitfalls.
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Frank Scialabba

10 min read

In our debut month, HR Brew is asking the question “Where are we?” with stories that explore where we, employees and HR professionals, are physically working at this point in the pandemic, as well as where we are metaphorically, as the industry sees rapid growth while confronting enormous challenges. Our first story, a deep dive on how the “return to the workplace” is going, comes from Sam Blum.

Eighteen months into the Covid-19 pandemic, and the office—one of society’s most reliable institutions—is looking more like a Motorola pager than a brand-new pair of AirPods.

Shiny corporate headquarters weren’t supposed to go the way of Blockbuster Video: Earlier this year, as vaccination rates rose and Covid-19 cases waned, corporate America was poised to pop open its office doors. But the emergence of the highly contagious Delta variant forced many companies to punt their reopenings into an unknowable future.

Now, people-ops departments across the country are grappling with how to get workers back into offices, while navigating a host of pandemic-era obstacles. They’re finding the job onerous, and some workers are fed up with what they feel are lax safety standards and poor communication from companies that are trying, again, to shovel people back into cubes and the old ways of working.

To survey this fast-changing landscape, we looked at two companies on different ends of the reopening spectrum, identifying several of the pitfalls that dusting off a row of cubicles can bring, as well as some of the tactics that could potentially help offices keep their lights on (without giving off weird, abandoned–Chuck E. Cheese vibes).

Clashing philosophies

“Why does that CHRO...want to see people back in the office? I think if we’re to be honest about it, it’s perception. He feels that if he can’t see them, then [workers] aren’t doing what they need to be doing,” said one recruitment consultant, who asked that his name be withheld because he did not want to jeopardize his client relationships.

The pandemic has thrust two opposing managerial philosophies into the spotlight, the consultant said. The old-guard approach maintained by certain corporate leaders says that workers need to toil away under a manager’s watchful eye to be productive, while the majority of workers say the pandemic-born remote-work revolution has proven exactly the opposite.

A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research from this year projects that overall economic productivity will grow by 5% after the pandemic recedes, largely due to new work configurations and the elimination of universally loathed commutes. And according to a Mercer survey that polled 800 employers last year, 90% claimed that productivity stayed the same or improved under a remote-working format. In an anonymous survey on the website Blind, 64% of professionals said they’d prefer a permanent telecommuting arrangement to a $30,000 salary increase.

Despite the statistics underscoring the cause for remote work and prognostications touting its staying power, only 13% of American workers telecommuted during the month of August in the US, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The vast majority of American workers do not have the ability to beam into the office; to take one example, there were about 26 million people working in the US service industry alone pre-pandemic, according to data compiled by Data USA. (Americans who work remotely full-time, by contrast, numbered 19.5 million in February 2020, but are expected to climb upwards of 36.2 million people by 2025, according to research from UpWork.)

But some of the workers still Zooming into the cloud-based conference room are feeling the pull of their leadership teams, who’ve communicated plans to reopen offices, often in an iterative, unclear fashion. Workers are feeling caught in a game of tug-of-war between opposing managerial styles.

“I think there’s that push from managers who want to be a bit more controlling. Who want to have a more domineering feel over their employees,” said an employee at PayPal familiar with the company’s reopening plans in a major US city. The worker, who asked that their name be withheld because they were not authorized to speak publicly about their employer, added, “They’re playing their cards close to their chest because they’re not saying whether you can work from home forever, which makes me think you’re not going to be able to.”

Communication underload

The uncertainty over the permanence of remote work at some companies could have repercussions for workers who fled bigger and more expensive cities during the pandemic. At G/O Media, a New York City digital media company whose portfolio includes The Onion and Jezebel, employees who moved outside of a commutable distance aren’t sure if they’ll have jobs when the company’s office opens its doors on October 18.

G/O Media employees are “waiting for a concrete statement to be made about if they have to be in the office five days a week or quit. There has not been clear communication from the CEO, HR, or any department heads,” an employee of the company told HR Brew. (Full disclosure: I was employed by G/O Media publication Lifehacker for 10 months between 2020 and 2021.)

Google initially announced to its global workforce of 135,000 that its return plan would be delayed until October 18, only to prolong it further, until January of 2022. Many other firms in Big Tech and beyond are following the search giant’s lead: According to a Gartner survey of 238 executive leaders in August, 66% are delaying their reopening plans. For workers on the ground, such delays are understandable, however the frustration can be compounded when reopening plans are communicated poorly, particularly when it comes to safety amid a pandemic that is still raging in parts of the country.

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“The office itself is wide open with desks not spaced out or dividers,” said the G/O Media employee, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the company. “They’ve put hand sanitizer on every desk and are not requiring masks, so they seem to not fully understand the best practices for Covid safety while being in an enclosed space with lots of other people.”

Representatives of G/O Media and PayPal did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

As companies wait for OSHA to release details regarding President Joe Biden’s private-sector vaccine mandate, some have articulated their own safety policies regarding vaccination, many of which have done little to allay workers’ fears. One employee at a major New York City book publishing company told HR Brew about the company’s vaccine honor system, and how that has sparked anxiety among the rank-and-file. “They’re not tracking [vaccine] information; they’re not enforcing or verifying it. You basically just have to put your information into an online portal, and you don’t have to provide any proof of vaccination or proof of a Covid test,” she said.

At PayPal, “everyone has to be vaccinated,” but “they’re not asking for proof,” the PayPal employee told HR Brew, adding that employees are asked to verify their vaccination status through an online form requiring them to simply check a box signifying their status.

A tale of two offices

Meanwhile, HR leaders are wrestling with the existential dilemma of justifying the office’s purpose. Some, such as Aran Klingensmith, the VP of people and culture at the California software provider Fast Spring, have weathered the frenetic nature of reopening (and then closing again) firsthand. She told HR Brew that in June, the company “opened the office for maybe two days and then things went very sideways in California and then we went back to completely remote again.”

For now, Fast Spring’s 86-desk capacity office is open, but it’s only being used by two employees on a daily basis, Klingensmith said. The company, which has a “voluntary disclosure around vaccination status,” has implemented a number of social-distancing protocols, such as contactless entry and spaced out desks, but is still struggling to get its 80 Santa Barbara–based employees to come in. “There’s no one who has an answer, there’s no playbook,” said Klingensmith.

Some companies have managed to get workers to trickle in, however, albeit in a gradual and optional manner. Maria Alvarado, the facilities manager at analytics provider 1010 Data, explained how using the office as an optional workplace for its 100 New York–area employees has been a successful strategy. “There’s no direction or pressure to enter the office,” she said, emphasizing that the office is used for workers who merely “want a change of scenery.” Alvarado believes the absence of a definitive return to office plan has eased the anxiety workers might otherwise feel if office attendance were compulsory.

Though attendance is voluntary, 1010 Data is a pandemic outlier, as it expanded its physical office spaces from one to two locations, in New York and New Jersey, during the pandemic. The key, Alvarado claims, is communicating plans with the workforce on a granular level, enforcing strict limits on how many people can work in the office at any given time, and implementing social distancing through spacing of desks and in-office masking. Workers also choose when they come into work and where they sit.

Ultimately, the “office” as most people knew it before 2020 is in the midst of a seismic shift, in which it may exist for more targeted purposes, and less as a communal hub for 40 hours a week or more. “Life is not going to look like it did before Covid, especially in the office,” said Klingensmith. Companies, she added, need to ask the question: “What are the aspects of the office that we can promote that will allow people to use the space in a way that is productive and can help us maintain our culture?” Especially when so few people want to come in.

The answer may come in the form of monthly or quarterly workplace gatherings, when teams fly into different areas for a week of collaboration. The consultant HR Brew spoke to runs a video conferencing business, and gets his employees to meet once a quarter—a strategy that he said works. “It’s easier when you have these moments in time when you know we’re all going to physically interact. I can plan around that,” he said.

Given how many workers agree with that assessment, it’s plausible that the office of yesteryear will rapidly evolve into something dramatically different than the relic we remember—less like your uncle’s pager, and more of an intentionally useful place adapted for specific purposes. It seems that the future is starting now.—SB

Correction: an earlier version of this story stated that G/O Media was opening its offices on October 15. The re-open date is October 18.

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Contact Sam Blum via the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram (@SamBlum_Brew) or simply email [email protected].

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.