We can probably all agree that it’s been a pretty crazy year. With all the lockdowns and social distancing measures, the majority of the global workforce had been forced out of the office to work from home almost overnight.
But at the same time, one of the silver linings of the year-long COVID-19 storm cloud was the mass adoption of remote work worldwide. A survey taken in early 2021 by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) revealed that working from home has become more widely accepted over the last year, with a 10 per cent increase in respondents stating that remote work has been successful for their company compared to survey results in June 2020.
This is both good and bad. For some employers, COVID-19 has permanently altered their expectations about how and where employees could work. Some companies such as Twitter and Slack have even told their employees they can work from home forever. Even amongst employees, some highly relish the idea of swapping their makeshift home office for a proper office desk again and get back to seeing their colleagues in person.
Sadly, this isn’t the case for everyone.
Many companies face the challenge of handling workers who are worried about virus transmission or have simply grown accustomed to the WFH lifestyle and don’t want to return to the old ways of working out of an office. A LiveCareer survey published in January 2021 discovered that approximately one-third of working professionals would rather leave their job than go back to the office full-time. LiveCareer’s survey wasn’t a one-off either, studies by anonymous network Blind and business consultant Envoy had similar results.
Now that vaccinations are being rolled out and COVID-19 cases are simmering down in various parts of the world, the return to the office is fast approaching. In a perfect world, employees would be happy to go along with whatever management deemed suitable, or employers would prioritize employee wellbeing over profit. But in reality, there seems to be a major disconnect between managers and workers over the issue of remote work.
In Singapore, the latest restrictions require that only those who need to be at the workplace for cybersecurity reasons or to use special equipment should come to the office. However, many businesses are still requiring their employees to go back to the office despite Singapore's latest social distancing rules and employee concerns about safety, citing that they believe employees would be more productive at the workplace as the main reason.
In the U.S., the CEO of the online magazine, the Washingtonian, came under fire after penning an op-ed originally titled “As a CEO, I want my employees to understand the risks of not returning to work in the office”, while the content within suggested workers could lose benefits such as healthcare or have their jobs affected if they insist on continuing to work remotely. Needless to say, the veiled threat did not go down well, which led to the CEO formally apologizing and the title of the online article being changed.
A survey was jointly undertaken by Arizona State University and the Rockefeller Foundation shows approximately nine out of ten employers in the U.S. and U.K. plan to encourage or require vaccination. But with all the controversy surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines over the last few months, it’s understandable that not everyone will want to get vaccinated.
While it does vary from country to country, according to the latest guidelines from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers do have the legal right to require or mandate the COVID-19 vaccination. It's not a new concept – companies have historically been allowed to mandate flu and other vaccines but can make exemptions on a case by case basis. But when it comes to choosing between the carrot and the stick, many employers such as Kroger, Target and Petco have opted for providing monetary incentives and other perks like time off to get otherwise reluctant employees to get vaccinated.
Given the harsh and unpredictable circumstances brought about by the pandemic, it’s the sad reality that employees might have to choose between their health and safety and accommodating to the idiosyncrasies of their employers to keep their jobs. But the fact is, there isn’t a rulebook for any of this. There’s a lot of confusion and conflict about the best way forward, and many companies are hesitant to make large-scale decisions due to fear about what it could mean for future productivity.
Still, some companies are thriving despite the circumstances. For example, Salesforce is making headlines for having one of the most comprehensive returns to workplace strategies out there, combining clear policies, a comprehensive roadmap and the use of digital platforms to ease the transition. They’ve even released a step-by-step playbook to help other companies.
The truth is, only time will tell. Trying to predict when or how things will return to normal is pointless, and even a comprehensive guidebook on returning to the office will only go so far. Looking ahead to the rest of 2021, the one thing that is for certain is that everyone’s in the dark. As an employer, as long as you prioritize employee safety and wellbeing, that’s the best you can do.
Later down the line, if you need some extra inspiration on how to get your team excited about returning to the workplace, you might want to have a look at our article with the best (and worst) tips on what to do when your employees aren’t so keen on the office.