After a Delta-ridden summer, businesses saw a rare glimmer of optimism in October and November 2021. Many employees were vaccinated, boosted, and looking forward to seeing their colleagues in the workplace. A slow but steady office reopening seemed imminent — then Omicron disrupted everyone’s plans. 

Companies were forced to rethink their immediate strategy for returning to onsite work. Now, over a month into the new year, where do return to office plans stand?

Companies are delaying return-to-office (RTO) plans 

The Omicron surge forced businesses to quickly pivot their return-to-office plans. A Gartner survey conducted in early January 2022 found that:

  • 44% of companies delayed or changed reopening plans
  • 27% of executives said that they would push back reopening plans or close locations they had reopened. 
  • 17% said they would reduce the number of workers allowed onsite at the same time. 

“ZoomInfo will someday go back to the office. However, we have stopped giving our employees a specific return to office date because we really want the opportunity to assess what’s going on in the world and make a decision that ensures they have plenty of time to prepare for an office return,”  says Alyssa Lahar, chief human resources officer at ZoomInfo. 

Safety is the primary concern for HR teams 

Before the spread of Omicron, many companies were taking measures to make it safe for employees to return to the workplace. Efforts ranged from vaccination and booster mandates, onsite COVID testing, and onsite mask mandates, to improved cleaning procedures, HVAC system upgrades, and reconfiguring deskspace for appropriate spacing. HR teams also conducted employee roundtables and surveys to get a read on employees’ views about returning to work in person.  

“It’s really important for leaders to think through safety protocols and get the sentiment from their employees on how they’re feeling about a return. It would be wild for HR leaders to try to create programs or policies around driving people to an office without having checked the pulse of their team,” says Amy LeBold, executive vice president, people, at NextRoll, a marketing technology firm. 

Changes to return-to-office guidelines

On 5 November 2021, The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) floated an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) that required large private employers with 100 employees or more to mandate that workers either be fully vaccinated or conduct regular testing in order to be present in the workplace. 

“The OSHA ETS changed plans for many businesses and was understandably a difficult thing to implement. The good news for us at ZoomInfo was that we were already doing this,” says Michelle Brewer, vice president, human resources at ZoomInfo. 

Then on 13 January 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States blocked OSHA’s vaccine-or-testing rule and on 26 January, the workplace vaccine mandate was withdrawn, leading to more uncertainty around return-to-office guidelines. 

Macroeconomic factors impacting the return to office

Remote work has taken off 

Remote work was one of the most widely discussed trends in the labor economy before the pandemic. Now, many organizations — even in industries that have traditionally lagged in digital adoption — have embraced working from home. A larger pool of workers has experienced the flexibility and work-life balance afforded by remote work and this trend looks to only increase over time. It’s estimated that by 2025, 70% of the workforce will work remotely at least part-time

Not only has remote work become critical for workers with regard to their health and safety, but it also contributes to their overall happiness. Work-life balance and the opportunity to work remotely are major factors in whether or not individuals take a job. 

“We have two stories when recruiting post-pandemic. For candidates that want to remain remote, we point out that we are completely flexible and location-agnostic. For those folks craving getting back to an office environment or having that as an option, we also talk about what that looks like. We provide perks to both being in the office and working remotely—free lunches, snacks, and drinks are provided to both types of employees.” LeBold says.

Workers would rather quit than be forced back into the office 

Alongside returning to work, employee retention has been one of the biggest struggles for employers due to the ongoing Great Resignation. The recent Omicron surge led major tech employers like Apple, Google, Meta, and Lyft to reassess their RTO plan to prevent further employee turnover. Even financial institutions which strongly pushed for a return to offices had to concede to the changing situation. 

By the beginning of January, workers were so uncomfortable with the prospect of returning to the office that in a survey conducted by Morning Consult, 55% of remote workers said they would rather quit than return to the office.

Many employers are embracing the hybrid revolution

The hybrid work model has emerged as a possible solution to address resistance to returning to the office. It gives employees who miss in-person collaboration the opportunity to meet with colleagues (under strict safety guidelines), while allowing those who would rather not remain working remotely. 

“In a sales technology business like ours, there are people that want to come back to the office full time because they miss the ambiance. And then there are those who never want to come back at all. But we see that the majority of people want to come back in a hybrid way,” Lahar says.

However, LeBold points out that there are some potential pitfalls to the hybrid office model that might lead to inequities in the workplace. 

“It’s important for HR to be aware of the possible biases that might occur in a hybrid model,” LeBold says. “Having face time with senior management may provide those who come into the office with more career development opportunities than those who choose to work from home. Whereas while we were all working from home, everyone had a level playing field.”

Planning for a future return to the office

While a full return to the office might have been halted in the short term, it’s important for businesses to plan for the future. There are many advantages to an office environment that most of us have missed during the pandemic. 

The pros of going back to the office center around ease of collaboration, building rapport with colleagues, meeting people you might never overlap with on Zoom meetings because they are in the same space, learning from peers, and enjoying natural social interactions. It also affords those with less than ideal workspaces at home to work with fewer distractions and enjoy the mental health benefits of creating boundaries between the workplace and home life. 

But perhaps most importantly, returning to the office creates a sense of empathy and community for co-workers that struggle to exist, even if you work with people online for eight hours a day, five days a week. Working in person creates closer connections that we can all look forward to in the future.