Back to the Office—or Back to Remote Work?

Just as more companies were bringing employees back to the office, they’re now facing looming lockdowns that will upend business plans once more.

They’ve spent millions redesigning offices to reduce COVID risk. Special protocols were set by overworked human resources departments. Now, just as staffers were returning and resuming a semblance of normal operations, the world has shifted for corporations once more.

The shift, of course, is the dramatic and tragic rise in COVID-19 cases—now totaling a million a week in the United States—that has forced cities and towns to resume full or partial lockdowns or discussions about them. And while companies are more accustomed to the drill that they experienced last spring, this comes just as corporate leaders were inching toward more normal business operations. At last count, nearly two-thirds of workers in the US had returned to the office at least some of the time, an increase from just one third last April, according to one poll.

According to Nathan Blain, Korn Ferry’s global leader for cost optimization, the promise of a vaccine in coming months is a “light at the end of the tunnel” that softens the blow. But for now, leaders face the difficulty of trying to guess which governments are or may be shutting things down—an inconsistency that leaves the C-suite and employees alike in limbo. One state may not have any new restrictions, while a neighboring state may have closed many indoor businesses. “This is incredibly frustrating for leaders. It is a step backward for all of us,” Blain says.

Just a month ago, and through most of the fall, many companies were optimistically aiming for a return to normalcy, or as close to normal as they could while adhering to social distancing guidelines. Much of that will be on hold again. Companies that rely on face-to-face interaction for sales could once again struggle. It’s particularly difficult for travel and hospitality firms, Blain says, whose revenue streams are dependent on customers showing up at a certain venue. And then there are the workers themselves. “The next wave of lockdowns represents a serious challenge for leaders dealing with already-burned-out employees,” says Melissa Swift, Korn Ferry's global leader for workforce transformation. She calls the timing doubly unfortunate, “because even in a normal year, November/December is a time that employees grapple with burnout.”

To be sure, many companies will be able to rely on past lockdowns to help with any current ones. They have learned how to distribute masks to employees, encourage social distancing, and install plexiglass shields. Some essential retailers might have gotten a little lax in mask enforcement but will become more vigilant again as the virus surges everywhere, says Craig Rowley, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who specializes in retail. As for businesses that went fully remote, “everyone has confidence that if you had to send everyone home, you can get it done in 24 hours now,” Blain says.

Leaders also have a lot more knowledge about their employees than they did last time. Many know that many workers are at their wit’s end. According to one recent survey, nearly six in 10 employees reported feeling burned-out now, compared to 45% in April. Leaders are now hopefully communicating and checking in on employees, and listening to and addressing their concerns, says Mark Royal, senior director of Korn Ferry Advisory.

Although they can’t control any new lockdowns, leaders can begin to envision what the workplace will be like when the pandemic finally ends, experts say. By all accounts, effective vaccines could be widely distributed, at least in the United States, sometime in the spring. Because of that, companies can get serious about deciding which changes implemented during the pandemic should become permanent. Leaders can also start determining how much office real estate they really need and what type of policies they want to have for remote work. Before the news about the vaccines, all those discussions were just academic. “This can be a huge time for decision-making,” Blain says.