Father working from home hero

Redefining the Misnomer of "Return to Work"

The trouble with the return-to-work conversation is that many of us aren’t “returning to work.”

We never left. Work never stopped.

Bringing work home with us took on new meaning in 2020, as work lives blended (or collided) with the lives of our families. The lines between work and home blurred, faded, and required refocusing—sometimes daily, with the added stress among a multitude of stressors of not knowing how long it would last.

So, no, work didn’t stop.

And organizations didn’t fall apart because large segments of their workforces began to work from home. In fact, company culture became stronger for many, according to the ongoing research done by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) on the impact of the pandemic.

What we found is that workers felt closer to their team members and managers than ever before during 2020. Of the 1,200 professionals we polled this spring, 45% said their cultures had become stronger during the pandemic.

We also know that for the most part, organizations transitioned their workforces smoothly from onsite to remote work. Contrary to the long-held convictions of the remote work-averse, business didn’t fall off. Productivity didn’t deteriorate. In many cases, innovation and creativity became super-charged as workers navigated new and ingenious ways of meeting and collaborating with one another and their customers, both internal and external. And some sectors (tech especially) experienced soaring profits and growth.

Culture schmulture—get back to work!

But now, pressure is mounting for workers to “return to work.”

A handful of CEOs are very publicly and unapologetically digging in—like JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who was quoted in the Wall Street Journal recently clearly equating work with the office saying:  

“We want people back at work and my view is sometime in September, October, it will look just like it did before. Yes, people don’t like commuting, but so what?” 

Is this to say that because some of the company’s workers have been remote in the past year, work wasn’t happening? And what about the assertion that work will look “just like it did before”? Will it?

Why is work in the office or work from home the only choice in the minds of some leaders? And what about the potential for deep and irreparable harm to trust in leadership by making work setting a binary choice? This debate, which often pits the CEO against employees, is one that can do damage to the culture and brand of an organization for a long time to come.

In addition to being short-sighted, insisting on restoring things to the way they were pre-pandemic signals a preference for looking behind instead of ahead, even though there has been a great deal of agreement over the past year that in many ways, the pandemic simply accelerated the speed of changes to the way work gets done that were on the already on the horizon. Like expansive flexibility in work and remote work.

As i4cp’s CEO Kevin Oakes noted in his recently published best-selling book, Culture Renovation, “While not every company will change the world, companies that have successfully changed their culture focused the message on the future, not the past.”

What are HR leaders to make of this moment we find ourselves in? Some are caught in the untenable middle—between CEOs who demand that everyone return to the office because they believe that work should be done from work (even though we know it can be done—and done well—outside the confines of a corporate office) and employees, who are clearly saying that flexibility is something they want to continue to have.

The pandemic era doesn’t end because the CEO says it’s time to pack up the dining room table and head back into the office. It’s much more complex than this. There’s a lot to take into consideration. 

What about employees who have recovered from COVID-19 but are grappling with related and ongoing health issues? What about the dilemma parents are confronted with in terms of sending their kids to school when most children are not vaccinated? What about your employees whose kids have health issues? The issues are too numerous to count.  

Vaccinations and employer expectations don’t = the end of the crisis

Here’s one example: Returning to the office isn’t a matter of the combination of being fully vaccinated and the boss saying it’s time. It isn’t this simple, for example, for workers who no longer have easy access to childcare, to include before and after school care.

This is a very real problem even once schools are fully open again—one that particularly impacts women, especially women of color, and all parents in the Millennial and Gen X cohorts working in the U.S., where childcare is not affordable or widely subsidized. Innovative employers, such as unicorn startup Guild Education, which recently opened an onsite childcare center for employees, are positioning themselves for success by providing this benefit. Not only is this sort of offering attractive to working parents, it addresses a critical need--and a crisis that is worsening.    

A survey done by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in the early months of the pandemic found that just 11% of childcare providers could survive a closure of an indeterminate length of time without government support—and only 27% could survive a closure of a month.

A follow-up survey, which polled more than 5,000 childcare providers from all 50 states, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico found that of the childcare providers that have reopened, most have done so at substantially reduced capacity; others were unable to survive year-long shut-downs and will remain shuttered. Researchers have posited that as many as four million spots in childcare centers will be permanently lost in the U.S. due to the pandemic.

Flexible work not as a perk—as a necessity  

As we noted in a related piece this month, the great migration of 2020 could also be considered the great reassessment–all of our research shows that workers clearly want continued flexibility in their work arrangements; employers that refuse to bend in any way are at risk to see that talent walk away. This is a risk some employers are willing to take and are even anticipating.

Most of the nearly 350 organizations recently surveyed by i4cp expect to see costs related to post-pandemic turnover to increase moderately (43%); a combined 22% anticipate the overall cost in dollars will amount to large or very large increase. How much the availability of flexible work models such as hybrid will come into play as workers weigh their options moving forward remains to be seen, but all early indicators suggest that for many, there is no going back to the five-day weeks of commuting and arriving home in the evening after the kids are already in bed. 

Cost Impact Talent Loss back filling rolesAs the second half of 2021 unfolds, the numbers will help tell the rest of the story, which began with a pandemic that hit like a bolt from the blue, followed by the great migration from the office to home (and maybe back again?). Time will tell. But we’re not returning to “work.” We’ve been doing that work piece all along.

Lorrie Lykins is i4cp's Vice President of Research

Lorrie Lykins
Lorrie is i4cp's Vice President of Research. A thought leader, speaker, and researcher on the topic of gender equity, Lorrie has decades of experience in human capital research. Lorrie’s work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other renowned publications.