Earlier this month, after its workers asked for a return to the office, one private equity firm reopened its workplace. On Monday morning, the numerous employees gathered for their regular weekly meeting, but they quickly realized that they couldn’t stay socially distant if they gathered in their normal big conference room or even if they spread across the office’s multiple meeting areas. Frustrated at this inability to  collaborate in person, everyone retreated to their own desks to hold their meeting over Zoom, just like they had run it for the past several months.

As companies begin reopening their workplaces across the country, the early indicators reveal they might have swapped a health problem for a productivity problem. According to a recent poll of LinkedIn members who have returned to the workplace, less than one-quarter of them are concerned about a lack of protection guidelines or sanitation. But while one-way hallways, off-limits conference rooms, mandatory mask-wearing, staggered schedules, and other rules commonplace at most reopened offices may be curtailing COVID-19’s spread, they may also be limiting the collaboration that many experts believe is the reason why you’d have people in a common workplace to begin with. 

It’s another aspect of the complex questions leaders face regarding when and how to bring workers back to the office. “You have to have it both safe and meaningful,” says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner who specializes in recruiting human resources executives.  The situation could last until the middle of 2021 or longer, depending on when an effective vaccine is approved and then distributed widely.

The LinkedIn survey is the latest one to show that professionals who have recently returned to work are generally OK with what their employers have done to prevent the spread of the virus. (Even if they have concerns, some workers feel they have no choice but to return to the office.) About 40% of professionals did say they are worried about exposure to others who might not take social guidelines seriously, but experts believe that may stem more from fear of encountering those people on the commute to and from work. Inside the office itself, Korn Ferry clients say their employees have been compliant with new rules. “People tend to be on their best conventional behavior at the office,” says Ron Porter, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Global Human Resources Center of Expertise.

While that compliance may be creating a safer environment, it’s created some depressing-looking workplaces where face-to-face collaboration is difficult. “You have access to printers and other office equipment, but there are no communal lunches, no watercooler chats,” says Brian Bloom, Korn Ferry’s vice president of global benefits. “People may want to get back to the office because they’re sick of the isolation at home, but it’s not going to be the same.”

That lack of collaboration worries managers and top leaders. On the one hand, they’re concerned employees who are used to a vibrant office environment may become dispirited, especially in partially opened offices where only some, but not all, teammates have returned. Leaders also worry that they’ve lost out on some of the ways people best collaborate and innovate—through the ability to tap someone on the shoulder for an informal brainstorming session, for example, or getting a small group together in a conference room. People can try to replicate the experience on Zoom or other virtual meetings, but those tend to be scheduled and structured, not spontaneous. And at least right now, those informal meet-ups aren’t happening in reopened offices.

One of Kaplan’s clients returned to his office floor last week, which normally would have dozens of people working together. Instead, the client saw a nearly empty floor, only four other people were there, and all of them were in separate offices with the doors closed. “The client said it was like a scene out of The Walking Dead,” Kaplan says. 

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