Back to the Office, Now!

NYC just ordered 80,000 public workers back to the office in May. How fast—or slow—should firms make a similar transition?

The news must have created a sudden “gulp” feeling among many: New York City ordered all 80,000 of its remote-working employees back to the office the first week of May, a move that experts say could encourage at least some firms to speed up plans to end the work-at-home era.

The announcement by Mayor Bill de Blasio comes at a time when nearly seven in 10 employers have said in a recent survey that workers need to be back at the office at least part of the time. The critical decision is how to go about that transition, either with a quick trigger as New York is doing or more gradually. “Most of our clients are taking a conservative and cautious approach,” says Anthony LoPinto, Korn Ferry’s global sector leader for real estate and managing director of the firm’s New York office. At the same time, how competitors respond to this latest development could shift some of that thinking. “Most companies are tracking what others are doing, so it may be a factor,” he says.

Whenever it occurs, and whatever form it takes, reopening offices and transitioning workers back into them will clearly be an enormous undertaking. Since the summer, some firms have been trying to resume partial openings, but with limited success. Indeed, only 25% of workers in 10 large cities, including New York, went to their company’s offices during the week of March 10, according to recent data from Kastle Systems, a security firm that tracks access-card swipes in 2,500 office buildings. While many companies are considering hybrid work schedules, not many leaders are keen on going completely remote because they fear their corporate cultures will erode. “Access to immediate managers and coworkers has been a concern, along with the lack of day-to-day variety in work experiences,” says Mark Royal, senior director for Korn Ferry Advisory.

Press accounts say the mayor’s decision in New York is aimed, at least in part, to broadcast the message that a once virtually shut-down city was reopening for business. That said, experts say corporate leaders might have a hard time trying to pull off a five-week transition since many employees may not be back in their pre-pandemic homes. Among US adults, 16% moved or relocated for an extended period during 2020, according to a new report from the personal finance site Bankrate; Gen Zers age 18 to 24 and millennials age 25 to 40 were the ones who most likely packed their bags.

“It’s a mistake to think the decision to return to work can happen as suddenly as the decision to send everyone home,” says Nathan Blain, Korn Ferry’s global lead for optimizing people costs. For one thing, parents may find themselves having to return to work while their children are still schooling at home. Plus, while the vaccination rollout has improved of late, there will still be millions of people who haven’t been inoculated. That alone may merit a more delayed timeline, says Melissa Swift, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s global leader for workforce transformation. “If nothing else, the legal issues around exposure risk are still pretty thorny right now,” she says.

Still, experts say firms may be facing an internal showdown of sorts between leaders who want their employees back fast versus workers who feel they need more time—or don’t want to go back to the office at all. “We’re gearing up for a major tug of war,” Swift says.