The resurgence of Covid-19 cases due to the delta variant is casting uncertainty on future plans yet again, including the return to offices.
Some 36% of people currently working from home say they're still waiting to hear from their employer about whether they'll stay remote or be expected to return to the workplace anytime soon, according to a survey of nearly 3,000 American workers conducted by LinkedIn in July.
In the last few weeks alone, a number of sweeping measures — such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's updated guidance on indoor masking and the Biden administration requiring vaccines of federal workers — have cast further doubt on the future of in-person work plans for millions. Every day, more organizations announce their delays in return-to-office plans, with some pushing their return by a few weeks into October and others saying they'll revisit the issue in 2022.
Avoiding a premature return is a good idea to safeguard workers' health and safety, but not giving any indication of future plans can be stressful and frustrating for employees.
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"It's all about communication," Shannon Hardy, LinkedIn's vice president of flexible work, told CNBC Make It. "Even sharing where you are in the planning process or what criteria is being used to determine plans will help employees feel seen and prioritized."
Sharing any details, even about a deliberation period, can ease the stress for employees, especially parents and caregivers who must plan around school and child-care needs.
Parents and caregivers of children are more likely to have concerns about returning to a workplace in general, according to a June McKinsey survey, because they worry being in public could increase their chances of contracting the virus and spreading it to children at home who are too young to be vaccinated.
Some 41% of people currently working remotely say they'd need more than a week to prepare for a return to the office; among parents, 52% would need more than one week, and 35% would need more than two weeks, according to LinkedIn.
Hardy said companies must consider that employees face different realities and responsibilities as they set expectations for the future.
The best, and safest, thing employers can do is adhere to official public health guidance, such as from the CDC, Hardy added. "And many, like LinkedIn, are leaving it up to individuals and teams to figure out what works best for them."
Nearly a quarter don't want to return at all
Employees are already showing some resistance to returning to the workplace. Just 34% of remote workers who have been asked to return in person have accepted their return orders, according to LinkedIn. The survey doesn't distinguish between a voluntary or a mandatory return, so it's possible this small share of people back in an office are electing to do so for their own reasons.
Meanwhile, 22% of remote workers don't plan to go back to their workplace at all if and when it reopens.
Per the McKinsey report, workers are most concerned about returning to work sites due to health and safety risks related to Covid-19. A second major factor is losing a sense of autonomy and flexibility workers gained with the ability to work remotely.
Organizations should ask employees directly what they want to use the office for, as well as what remaining fears they have in a potential return.
"For example, 87% of employees say workplace health safety protocols are important to them, so adhering closely to CDC guidelines and communicating everything your company is doing to help employees stay safe can go a long way," Hardy said.
Additionally, "if employees have been remote and it has been working for them, it may be time for some leaders to rethink the role of the office," she added. "People will choose the office for different reasons at different times, and some may prefer not to use it at all."
A feedback loop between leadership and individual employees remains critical in developing a future work plan. "Expectations for employees should be clear but flexible," Hardy said. "If an employee doesn't feel comfortable returning if the time comes, leaders should have that conversation with them openly and empathetically and help them find solutions that will be suitable for both sides."
Employers should also understand workers may have concerns that extend beyond the physical office. More than a quarter of people from the LinkedIn survey said they have safety concerns about their commute to the workplace, and 13% say they don't currently have access to transportation for commuting that feels safe to them.
And many say getting rid of their commute has improved their well-being: 39% said working from home during the pandemic had a positive effect on their mental health, because they no longer had to deal with the anxiety and pressure of a daily commute.
"While it may not be the employer's responsibility to get their employees to work safely," Hardy said, "it is important that employers be sensitive to the needs and feelings of their employees when it comes to commuting."
Organizations should try to accommodate where they can, for example allowing employees to work remotely, offering a stipend for rental cars or ride shares, or a combination of a few solutions.
Decisions today impact culture down the road
The way an organization prepares for and communicates its return-to-work plan can have a huge impact on company culture down the road. Already, the U.S. job market has seen unprecedented spikes in people quitting their jobs, negotiating for better pay and pushing for more flexible and equitable work conditions.
"Coming out of the pandemic, employees are looking to get more out of their work and their companies," Hardy said. "If employers do not communicate about what the future of work looks like for their company, they risk their employees losing trust in the organization. [They] may risk losing their employees altogether."
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