The trouble with the return-to-work conversation is that
many of us aren’t “returning to work.”
We never left. Work never stopped.
Bringing work home with us took on new meaning in 2020, as
work lives blended (or collided) with the lives of our families. The lines
between work and home blurred, faded, and required refocusing—sometimes daily,
with the added stress among a multitude of stressors of not knowing how long it
So, no, work didn’t stop.
And organizations didn’t fall apart because large segments
of their workforces began to work from home. In fact, company culture became
stronger for many, according to the ongoing research done by the Institute for
Corporate Productivity (i4cp) on the impact of the pandemic.
What we found is that workers felt closer to their team
members and managers than ever before during 2020. Of the 1,200 professionals
we polled this spring, 45% said their cultures had become stronger during the
We also know that for the most part, organizations
transitioned their workforces smoothly from onsite to remote work. Contrary to
the long-held convictions of the remote work-averse, business didn’t fall off.
Productivity didn’t deteriorate. In many cases, innovation and creativity
became super-charged as workers navigated new and ingenious ways of meeting and
collaborating with one another and their customers, both internal and external.
And some sectors (tech especially) experienced soaring profits and growth.
Culture schmulture—get back to work!
But now, pressure is mounting for workers to “return to
A handful of CEOs are very publicly and unapologetically
digging in—like JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who was
quoted in the Wall Street Journal recently clearly equating work
with the office saying:
“We want people back at work and my view is sometime in
September, October, it will look just like it did before. Yes, people don’t
like commuting, but so what?”
Is this to say that because some of the company’s workers
have been remote in the past year, work wasn’t happening? And what about the
assertion that work will look “just like it did before”? Will it?
Why is work in the office or work from home the only choice
in the minds of some leaders? And what about the potential for deep and irreparable
harm to trust in leadership by making work setting a binary choice? This
debate, which often pits the CEO against employees, is one that can do damage
to the culture and brand of an organization for a long time to come.
In addition to being short-sighted, insisting on restoring
things to the way they were pre-pandemic signals a preference for looking
behind instead of ahead, even though there has been a great deal of agreement
over the past year that in many ways, the pandemic simply accelerated the speed
of changes to the way work gets done that were on the already on the horizon. Like
expansive flexibility in work and remote work.
As i4cp’s CEO Kevin Oakes noted in his recently published best-selling book, Culture Renovation,
“While not every company will change the world, companies that have
successfully changed their culture focused the message on the future, not the
What are HR leaders to make of this moment we find ourselves
in? Some are caught in the untenable middle—between CEOs who demand that
everyone return to the office because they believe that work should be done
from work (even though we know it can be done—and done well—outside the
confines of a corporate office) and employees, who are clearly saying that flexibility
is something they want to continue to have.
The pandemic era doesn’t end because the CEO says it’s time
to pack up the dining room table and head back into the office. It’s much more
complex than this. There’s a lot to take into consideration.
Vaccinations and employer expectations don’t = the end of
Here’s one example: Returning to the office isn’t a matter
of the combination of being fully vaccinated and the boss saying it’s time. It
isn’t this simple, for example, for workers who no longer have easy access to
childcare, to include before and after school care.
This is a very real problem even once schools are fully open
again—one that particularly impacts women, especially women of color, and all
parents in the Millennial and Gen X cohorts working
in the U.S., where childcare is not affordable or widely subsidized.
A survey done by the National Association for the Education
of Young Children (NAEYC) in the early months of the pandemic found that just
11% of childcare providers could survive a closure of an indeterminate length
of time without government support—and only 27% could survive a closure of a
A follow-up survey, which polled more than 5,000 childcare
providers from all 50 states, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico found that of the childcare
providers that have reopened, most have done so at substantially reduced
capacity; others were unable to survive year-long shut-downs and will remain
shuttered. Researchers have posited that as many as four million spots
in childcare centers will be permanently lost in the U.S. due to the pandemic.
Flexible work not as a perk—as a necessity
As we noted in
a related piece this month, the great migration of 2020 could also
be considered the great reassessment–all of our research shows that
workers clearly want continued flexibility in their work arrangements;
employers that refuse to bend in any way are at risk to see that talent walk
away. This is a risk some employers are willing to take and are even
Most of the nearly 350
organizations recently surveyed by i4cp expect to see costs related to
post-pandemic turnover to increase moderately (43%); a combined 22% anticipate
the overall cost in dollars will amount to large or very large increase. How much the availability of flexible work models such as hybrid will come into play as workers weight their options moving forward remains to be seen, but all early indicators suggest that for many, there is no going back to the five-day weeks of commuting and arriving home in the evening after the kids are already in bed.
As the second half of 2021 unfolds, the numbers will help
tell the rest of the story, which began with a pandemic that hit like a bolt
from the blue, followed by the great migration from the office to home (and
maybe back again?). Time will tell. But we’re not returning to “work.” We’ve
been doing that work piece all along.
Lorrie Lykins is i4cp’s
Vice President of Research