Workers were meant to have returned to the office by now. Our expectation, back in early 2020, was that once the pandemic had ended, we’d all collectively resume our pre-Covid patterns of office-based working.
Yet that’s not how things have turned out. Two years on, employees around the world continue to face ongoing uncertainty as to when – and if – they’ll be expected back at the workplace in person. The emergence of different Covid-19 variants has exacerbated matters; Omicron has triggered record cases globally, forcing employees who were slowly adapting to a partial, hybrid return to the office to reverse course and work remotely again.
Today, the idea that we’ll all return to the office together again seems highly unrealistic. Some companies have already switched permanently to remote work or hybrid models. And, while others may be holding out for staff to come back to their desks, each delay further entrenches flexible working patterns – rendering a full-staff return less likely.
“The return-to-office date has died,” says Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics at Stanford University, US. “Endless waves of Covid have led most CEOs to give up, and instead set up contingent policies: if, when and how to return to the office.”
But if we finally abandon the idea that there will ever be a day when we’re all permanently back at our office desks, what should we expect instead?
The days of workers jamming streets to get to work en masse may become a relic of pre-pandemic days (Credit: Getty Images)
Why there’s no ‘back to normal’
When the pandemic first hit, and its scale was still to be mapped, a widespread return to the workplace seemed likely in 2020.
Employers and employees alike anticipated a hard date to come back: some kind of reversion to a pre-pandemic normal – the majority of workforces together in offices, at least a few days a week. In turn, the expectation was that many prior characteristics of work, such as the fixed nine-to-five schedule, would be restored.
Businesses of all kinds, across multiple sectors, set return-to-office dates throughout 2020. However, as the pandemic dragged on, companies pushed plans back. This was in part due to ongoing health concerns in many countries, but also because workers had become comfortable – and remained productive – in their remote set-ups, and some even pushed back against these dates.
“Early in the crisis CEOs would pronounce return-to-office plans only for them to get wiped out by each new wave and variant,” explains Bloom. And even when employers did fully expect to bring workers back at a defined moment regardless, the unpredictable nature of the pandemic meant return-to-office dates were increasingly kicked down the road.
Now, in the third year of Covid-19, the return-to-office date remains a constantly moving target. It seems increasingly improbable to expect a universal return. Flexibility and remote work have become so deeply rooted that reimposing pre-pandemic working models appears a nigh-on impossible task. “Habits are hard to break,” says Almuth McDowall, professor of organisational psychology at London’s Birkbeck University. “We’ve all harnessed more innovative, efficient ways of doing our jobs.”
Early in the crisis CEOs would pronounce return-to-office plans only for them to get wiped out by each new wave and variant – Nicholas Bloom
Uncertainty around health remains rampant; we don’t know when the pandemic will end, whether Covid will become endemic or if another variant will emerge – let alone rough dates for when these might occur. And employees will continue to have different levels of risk tolerance; for instance, a healthy, single person may be more willing to go back to the office than an immunocompromised worker, or one with children too young to be vaccinated. “Amid Omicron, there is much low-level anxiety – many don’t want to rush back to the office,” adds McDowall.
Considering all these factors, setting a sweeping, all-employee return-to-office date the way companies have been attempting – and workers have been anticipating – since 2020 seems like a fantasy: a construction of the past that no longer reflects our changing world.
Devil in the details
Ultimately, the office return will look different across sectors and companies; there won’t be a one-size-fits-all ‘back to work’ date – and for some employees, there won’t be a date at all. How does a worker figure out what’s next for them?
The ways – and reasons why – employers have already planned to bring back their workers during the pandemic may be a good indicator for how they’ll try to do so in the future.
On one hand, it’s likely many of the sectors who’ve tried mightily to pull employees back into the office multiple times during the pandemic will be keen to create the fastest, most sweeping return-to-office policies.
Some industries, like finance, are more likely to return to the office as quickly as possible – but their plans are still up in the air (Credit: Getty Images)
For example, in finance, executives have been aggressive in their timelines to bring people back. This is in part due to a highly in-person work culture, but also due to “aspects of financial services, particularly around the trading floor, which aren’t as easy to do remotely”, says Chris Leahy, founder of due-diligence investigative firm Blackpeak. Essentially, businesses like these are less nimble than others, often hamstrung by regulations and decades-old practises still assuming that, at some point, everyone will return.
Even in other sectors that aren’t so regulation-bound, many businesses have repeatedly set hard return dates, though they’ve had to move them, sometimes multiple times. Although it’s still murky as to when, workers at companies like these should plan to return to the office at some point, since it’s clear their employers are still placing emphasis on at least some in-person work.
Yet, despite these indicators, the future may be even more malleable than we expect. Even as some sectors cling to pre-pandemic ways of working, worker power may potentially destabilise some employers’ best laid plans.
Many bosses haven’t been able to make a firm decision yet, because we don't know exactly what will happen – Almuth McDowall
For instance, Bloom says employees’ desire to work from home has strengthened as the pandemic has lingered, meaning many return-to-office plans have received staff backlash, both in the finance and tech industries, particularly from younger workers who question the wisdom of returning to the office at all. Bloom adds that the ongoing hiring crisis also means that workers in some sectors currently have more power than before; if their employer won’t accommodate requests for different job conditions such as flexible working, employees can choose to switch to one who will.
Simply, the devil will be in the details for every individual company and role: what the ‘return-to-the-office’ will look like in practice will differ from worker to worker – a process that’s still taking time. “Many bosses haven’t been able to make a firm decision yet, because we don't know exactly what will happen,” says McDowall. “If you don't think it’s the right thing for your business to go fully remote or hybrid, then it makes sense to delay for as long as possible.”
No matter when leaders can start making those decisions, however, it seems all but certain that the day when we’re all back together on the train platform, heading into our offices for a Big Bang restart, is gone. Although it may not be confirmed yet by bosses, the formal end to the full office return is coming – if not yet already here. “Unless something drastically changes, then the full return to the office is likely a myth,” says McDowall.