Senior Client Partner
This Week in Leadership (July 19 - July 25)
What the Delta variant means for office returns. Solving the labor shortage with returnships. Plus, tips for how to be a great board director.
Less than a month ago, it had become almost a bragging point for some firms that a majority of its workers were back in the office. Other companies were inching closer to plans to return to more normal operations, either with staffs fully in-office or partially hybrid. And then the news hit.
In startling fashion, the so-called delta variant has taken hold of COVID-19 cases in the United States just as many companies in more developed nations thought the pandemic had greatly eased. At last count, COVID cases had surged 70% over a seven-day average in the US alone, forcing a growing number of counties to mandate masks indoors. And while that is certainly alarming from a public health standpoint, it also leaves businesses in a critical bind over a major point of contention with workers.
Already, many of the back-to-work efforts were proving disappointing, with only a third of people returning to offices, according to one study. Now, with the latest developments, the debate over how firms handle returning to office is heating up even more. Some experts, like Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner for Korn Ferry’s Chief Human Resources Officer practice, say firms that set a hard line on requiring workers to return may have to backtrack. “It was premature for companies to make any declarations,” he says. “The pandemic, despite all our wishes, isn’t over.”
In particular, several leading financial firms have been strong believers in requiring full-office returns. “One of the strategies I often heard repeated was the golden rule: do not start small and then build—start big and then peel back,” says Chad Astmann, global cohead of Korn Ferry’s Global Investment Management practice. In his view, those firms that made full-office return plans can now slim down this requirement if the variant spreads. “Doing the reverse is a morale killer,” he says.
The issue comes at a delicate time for most companies, which are facing an unprecedented struggle to fill jobs to meet soaring business while also dealing with a workforce full of new demands. In one recent month, nearly 4 million people quit their jobs, the highest level in two decades. Amid a period dubbed the “Great Resignation,” some experts say organizations have no choice but to give workers the flexibility they want. “It’s really a talent issue,” says Andrew De Marco, Korn Ferry’s vice present of human resources for the Americas. “If you want people to come to your firm at all, you are probably stuck as an employer to create options.”
Many experts say firms will need to rely more on local regions to make calls on when to reopen offices and when or if to require workers to come back. “It feels like it’s the end of top leadership setting black-and-white policies,” says Evelyn Orr, chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute. “We are going to have hot spots in different places at different times, and that means less top-down leadership and more empowerment to local management.”