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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.

Go deeper

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
Jan 14, 2022 - Economy & Business

How Marc Benioff is transforming Time magazine

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela. Photo: Jamie McCarthy/WireImage

When Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne bought Time magazine from Meredith Corp. in 2018, it read to many as a vanity purchase. A billionaire buying a legendary media brand, to impress friends and influence people, without doing too much legwork.

Why it matters: But the carve-out is proving transformative for Time, as Benioff seems to have actively brought a lot of his tech ethos to the company Henry Luce founded nearly 100 years ago.

Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling

Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Starbucks has dropped plans to require that U.S. workers get the COVID vaccine or submit to weekly testing, the company announced Tuesday in a memo to employees.

Why it matters: The company's decision comes in response to the Supreme Court's ruling last week to block the Biden administration's COVID-19 vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

2 hours ago - World

Netanyahu plea talks enter crunch time

Netanyahu (right) meets with his lawyer ahead of a court hearing last February. Photo: Reuven Casto/Pool/AFP via Getty

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's opposition leader and former prime minister, is negotiating a possible plea deal over the corruption charges against him, but Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit appears to be toughening his terms.

Why it matters: Mandelblit leaves office on Jan. 31. Negotiations could continue beyond that point, but the next attorney general may be less interested in quickly reaching a deal.

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