It seems that the U.S. may be reopening quicker than most people imagined. A number of Big Tech bellwether companies expedited their plans for workers to start returning to the office ahead of previously announced schedules.
Facebook will start having people return to in-person work by May. Ride-sharing company Uber plans for its white-collar staff to come back to its offices at the end of March and so will Microsoft, as it opens its Redmond, Washington, headquarters on March 29.
Here are some of the big issues people will confront when they return to the office:
Strict health and safety rules
The reopening may start out a little awkwardly. The companies will begin with only a limited capacity—around 10% to 20%. In the large and sprawling headquarters, it could feel surreal. Facebook, Microsoft and Uber said that they will all require face masks, social distancing, weekly Covid-19 tests, temperature checks, regular cleanings and ask employees with sick family members to stay home.
At the beginning of the pandemic, nearly every white-collar professional was sent home. Since almost everyone was working remotely, there wasn’t a comparison to be made between the two in-office and at-home groups. Now, things may change. As companies start offering a hybrid model of work—encompassing a combination of both remote and office-based workers—managers may start questioning the work ethic of people who chose to work remotely.
With only about 10% to 20% of the workers in the large office space together, it will be natural for them to bond and create a unique esprit de corps. The small band of intrepid risk takers will cultivate and nurture unique relationships. Those at home may miss out on this close-knit camaraderie.
Supervisors may succumb to an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” thought process
Remote workers could lose out. Bosses are likely to formulate false assumptions about their work ethic and commitment to the company. If a remote-worker arrives late or misses a virtual meeting, it could be presumed that the person is slacking off. Some managers will question why some employees are in the office only Tuesdays through Thursday, and operating remotely on Mondays and Fridays. They’ll feel that they are taking advantage and taking long weekends.
Skeptical managers may deploy invasive surveillance technologies on the computers of home-based employees to ensure that they are actually working. The remote employees may grow resentful of this type of micromanaging and distrust.
At first, it will be exciting to get back to the office, renew relationships and enjoy the social aspect of being together again. Pretty soon, they’ll remember how awful commuting is—especially after being home for over a year—and the wear and tear it takes on them. They’ll feel that their remote counterparts are getting a better deal and start becoming resentful.
There will be a big burden placed on managers
Supervisors will have to manage a hybrid model, in which some people are in the office and others at home. A trend of digital nomads, along with having a far-flung geographic network of employees, will make it hard on managers to coordinate schedules, hold impromptu meetings or quickly grab a hold of someone to get an answer for a pressing problem.
Accommodations need to be made
Almost everyone faced difficulties during the outbreak—some more than others. For dual-working parents with young children, it was hard to juggle work, child care and acting as a surrogate teacher. To compound the problem, city officials made capricious, chaotic edicts on opening and closing the public schools. This led to many women leaving the workforce. Supervisors will need to figure out ways to help their employees navigate these issues.
In places where people are commuting via public transportation, they will fear contracting Covid-19, even after most Americans are vaccinated. They may claim that they should receive extra compensation for their commuting time and the inherent risks. Meanwhile, those at home, will call for stipends to reimburse money laid out for costly home-office expenditures.
Companies will have to spend a lot of money
To ensure safety, corporations will need to radically redesign its office space. This includes refurbishing or repurposing meeting rooms, building collaborative conference rooms that afford social distancing, offering video stations to accommodate remote staff and ensuring that the building adheres to all of the health and safety requirements.
Executive management, recognizing the new work reality, will try to save money by reducing its physical footprint. With less commercial space, it’s likely that people won’t have their own desks and be required to reserve one when they come into the office.
If they can’t get out of leases and are stuck with exorbitant rents in expensive cities, such as New York and San Francisco, executives may make a push for people to come back into the office, so they don’t feel that they’re throwing money out the window.
The emergence of a dual-class system
The necessity of working from home during the pandemic could start being considered a choice—rather than something that has to be done this way. Bosses may feel it’s becoming a big inconvenience to have a segment of their workforce not being in the office and within eyesight and favor those within close proximity.
There may be a “hidden downside for employees,” said Zillow CEO Rich Barton. He raised concerns about a two-tier system arising amongst workers, stating, “We must ensure a level playing field for all team members, regardless of their physical location.” Barton added, “There cannot be a two-class system—those in the room being first-class and those on the phone being second-class.”
Sid Sijbrandij, CEO of code-collaboration company GitLab, doesn’t believe in the hybrid model. He called it “the worst of both worlds.” Sijbrandij predicts that “remote employees won’t feel included and will have a more challenging time communicating than their peers who report to the office.”