Returning to the office?

Will employer promises of flexibility come true once more people return to the office?

With the U.S. now cranking up vaccinations, we’re about to head into yet another tricky phase of the pandemic: the reopening of offices where employers had the luxury of moving everyone to remote work.

It’s already happening. Kastle Systems, an office security firm that tracks key card usage at more than 2,500 buildings in 138 cities, in early March reported that among 10 large cities, businesses are at an average 24% of office occupancy relative to where they were pre-COVID. That’s compared to less than 15% a year ago when the vacate orders had been freshly issued.

Texas employers — with the blessing of the governor — seem most eager to get their workforce back into the office. According to Kastle data, office occupancy is at least 30% of where it was before the pandemic in the Austin, Houston and Dallas metro areas. In Dallas, office activity fell to about 15% of its pre-COVID norm in spring 2020, but is now back to nearly 37%.

By comparison, in tech-centric San Francisco (13.2%) and Silicon Valley/San Jose (16%), where plenty of work can be done via laptop, employers don’t seem to be in any hurry getting workers back into the office. Yet in the California land of entertainment creatives, getting back to the office seems more on the agenda, as Los Angeles was at 26.5% occupancy according to Kastle.

The consulting firm PwC has been conducting surveys of both employers and employees during the pandemic about their work-space preferences and expectations.

Both management and workers agree that remote work works. More than 80% of employers said remote work has been a success, and 71% of workers rated it a success.

But employers still want bodies in the office. At least some of the time. Workers not so much.

Just 21% of the execs surveyed by PwC said they think staff needs to be in the office together five days a week to maintain a solid work culture.

Nearly one in three execs (29%) thought three days per week in the office was enough real face time. Another 15% put it at two days and 5% said one day a week was enough. Let that sink in: Nearly half of managers are on board with reducing the commuting schlep to three days per week or less.

In the same survey, just 8% of workers are interested in being office-bound five days a week; 29% want to work remotely all five days. Among all workers, 75% said they want to be able to work at home at least two days a week.

Given we’ve just live-tested the feasibility of work-from-home, and management is on record that the bottom line did just fine, it’s sure to accelerate the conversation about codifying remote work as a standard work benefit.

In a recent poll of 1,000 office workers by LiveCareer, 29% said they will quit if they are required to return to the office, and 62% said that in the future, remote-work policy will be a consideration in a career.

That said, if you’re loving remote work, you might want to calibrate your desire to always be remote, vs. some career practicalities. For starters, if you have colleagues who will be in the office from time to time (including your manager), never showing up puts you at a disadvantage.

Sure, you’re productive. Sure, you’re valued. But literal — not just virtual — face time has its upside. In the same LiveCareer poll, 50% said they don’t get as much feedback when working remotely, and one in four said communications with their manager and colleagues took a hit. Nearly one in five thought their odds of getting a promotion had decreased.

How will management and workers navigate a workplace where not everyone will be vaccinated?

Guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says employers are on firm ground if they want to mandate vaccination, though they should be open to medical and religious exceptions. That said, it’s not likely firms want to be in this position.

During the road out of the pandemic, it may come down to many employers leaving it up to workers to decide their comfort level being in a mixed office space. Back in the early fall, the consulting firm KPMG surveyed senior executives of 100 big companies (annual revenue of at least $1 billion), and 82% said they would leave it to employees to decide when they are ready to haul it back to the office.

That’s encouraging. But at the end of the day, each of us is going to need to carefully read the tea leaves at our employer, and for our individual manager.

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