Updated Dec 19, 2021 - Economy

Companies give up on return-to-work

Illustration of a crystal ball with a briefcase inside

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In the 22 months since U.S. companies sent their workers home, they've collected droves of poll data, paid workplace consultants billions of dollars, and drafted plan after plan — but they still don't know much more about post-pandemic work than they did in March 2020.

Driving the news: The latest factor to foil every return-to-work plan is the arrival of the Omicron COVID variant.

"Companies are in kind of a Catch-22," says Brad Bell, director of the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies at Cornell. "On the one hand, employees are wanting transparency. They want a plan."

  • "But every time we think we're coming out of this, and companies go to flip the switch on return-to-work, something comes up," he says. Then, firms end up having to walk back their words, further frustrating or confusing workers.
  • In June, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman said at a conference that he'd be "very disappointed" if his workforce wasn't back in the office by Labor Day 2021. But this week, he told CNBC, "I was wrong on this.... Everybody’s still finding their way."
  • Other firms that have pushed back their return-to-work dates in the last week include Ford, Lyft and DocuSign, the New York Times' Emma Goldberg writes. DocuSign's planned Jan. 10, 2022 return was its fourth attempt at setting a date to bring employees back.

Not only do companies not have a return-to-work date, they also don't exactly know what that return to work will look like.

  • Senior employees and executives as well as young, early-career workers want to return to the office full time. But a vast majority of the middle wants a flexible, hybrid workweek.
  • Yet no company and no workplace experts can definitively say what hybrid will really look like in a post-COVID world.

"It’s way more complex and way more difficult to make that transition [to hybrid] than we thought," says Brian Kropp, head of Gartner's human resources practice. "It’s gonna take another two to three years at least. It is that big of a change."

  • That's because marrying remote and in-person work is not a technology problem like we originally thought, Kropp says. "It’s a consistency and evenness-of-experience question."
  • When some workers are home and some are in the office, firms have to tackle problems like remote workers falling out of sight and out of mind — and even losing out on project assignments or promotions to their in-person colleagues. And they haven't figured out how to do that yet.
  • "Before the pandemic, we knew how to work in person, and now we’ve learned a lot about how to navigate this fully remote thing," Cornell's Bell says. "The tricky thing is when you have people that are across these different work models."

The bottom line: We were guessing at how COVID might change the working world 22 months ago, and we're still guessing today.

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