Back to the Office? Not Yet

New data shows elaborate corporate efforts to get people back to offices are stalling. Will some firms begin to give up on the idea?

Hospital admissions are down, vaccines are in distribution, and health officials believe the COVID-19 pandemic may begin fading away starting as early as spring or fall.

But even with that news, and after months of elaborate efforts to create safer indoor environments, companies are finding that fewer—not more—staffers are coming back. Indeed, 24% of workers in 10 large cities went to their company’s offices in the first week of February, according to recent data from Kastle Systems, a security firm that tracks access-card swipes in 2,500 office buildings. In October, the figure was 27%, with many experts then predicting that half would be back by now.

The figures suggest that corporate leaders still have a long way to go in convincing their staffs to work even part-time in office settings. They also raise the possibility that companies will decide against demanding that people come back full-time even after the pandemic ends, opting instead for remote work models. “There’s going to be a lot of conflict among executives on this,” says Melissa Swift, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global leader for workforce transformation.

Spending millions of dollars, many large firms have been dramatically redesigning offices and elevator protocols since the summer in hopes of one day returning to a more “normal” work environment. Though remote work remains popular among staffs, many C-suite leaders believe the face-to-face experience is necessary for the best innovations and productivity. But repeated waves of the COVID-19 outbreaks have thwarted many of those efforts. Most recently, the new, more transmissible variants of the coronavirus have rekindled workers’ fears, and in some areas forced firms that had reopened offices in the fall to shutter them again.

But experts say other factors unrelated to health and safety have stalled corporate plans—and may continue to do so well past the pandemic. For one thing, people have become somewhat set in their pandemic habits. The upheaval to remote work was both dramatic and traumatic when it happened nearly one year ago, and at this point, many workers may be less willing to disrupt their jobs again. “Fundamentally, people have reoriented their lives,” Swift says. Plus, workers who did come back to the office in recent months have discovered few colleagues there, eliminating much of the allure of working face-to-face. “At a certain point, nobody is going in because no one else is in,” Swift says.

Even so, many large organizations are still targeting late summer or fall for their offices to reopen fully. Whether all of the employees return to the workplace full-time is another matter. “The pre-COVID idea—that you have to be in the office—has been shattered,” says Ron Porter, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm’s Center for Human Resources Expertise. That may prompt more organizations to design so-called “hybrid” work-models as ways to attract and keep their top talent along with potentially shrinking their real estate costs (fewer people working in offices means less office space needed). “The ability to have flexible schedules may be an advantage,” he says.