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Will the US Workforce Ever Return to the Office?

Annie Erling Gofus - Jan 21 2022
Published in: Global Workforce
As the pandemic slowly evolves into an endemic, executives and office workers are grappling with a negotiated future of work

The Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19 dealt successive blows to public confidence and our understanding of the future of work. As organizations continue to shift timelines for implementing some form of “return-to-work,” they also continue to adapt just what that will look like.  According to Kastle’s Back to Work Barometer, U.S. office occupancy rates have dropped to 28%, well below the 40% rate in November and 37% in September.

“Every time we think we’re coming out of this, and companies go to flip the switch on return-to-work, something comes up,” says Brad Bell, director of the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies at Cornell. 

In June of 2021, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman announced that he planned for his workforce to be back in the office by Labor Day 2021. Those plans, which had been widely covered in the media, were derailed in part by the discovery of the omicron Covid variant, and Gorman was forced to admit, “I was wrong on this...everybody’s still finding their way.”

Morgan Stanley isn’t alone in having to walk back an edict that employees would be back in the office. Both Lyft and Ford have had to delay and reassess return-to-office plans. DocuSign also scrapped return-to-work plans for January 2022, which is the fourth time the company has attempted to bring its employees back to the office.

A recent upwork survey of 1,000 U.S. hiring managers found 67% of businesses reported many more changes to long-term business practices than in a normal year. In that same survey, 28% of respondents anticipated being fully remote in the next five years, up from 23% in November 2020.

Now, approaching two years since many workers left the office, once-temporary adaptations have been refined, and new technologies have been implemented. For many employees who have not yet returned to desks and cubicles, the concept of returning to an office from 9 to 5 five days a week is viewed as a disruption. Companies competing for talent amidst the Great Resignation, are finding much higher demand for remote opportunities as safety concerns and shifting child care needs

A Future Forum Pulse survey noted a wide gap between executives and non-executives about returning to the office. Although 76% of employees do not want to return to full-time in-person work, executives who are currently working remotely are nearly three times as likely to prefer returning to the office full-time. Bloomberg reports a 65% increase in searches for senior HR leaders that may stem in part from HR burnout negotiating the diverging needs of executives and employees.

American news website Axios reports that the vast majority of workers — 63% to be precise, want a flexible, hybrid workweek. The desire to go hybrid is especially strong among 25- to 34-year-olds. 

Yet, how exactly a hybrid workplace will be set up has yet to be determined. With the hybrid work model, organizations will have to balance workers at home and in the office. This will involve tackling serious problems like remote workers fading into the background and possibly losing out on assignments or even promotions to in-person colleagues. 

“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,” Brad Bell, director of the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies at Cornell says. “The tricky thing is when you have people that are across these different work models.”

Striking that balance is clearly the work at hand for leaders in human resources.