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Is Return to Office a Myth or Reality?

The onset of COVID upended businesses in practically every industry with restrictions and quarantine rules. Yet, the return to office date was always just around the corner. As we’re now in the third year of the pandemic, attitudes surrounding a tangible office return date are shifting. It seems that a full return to office has become more of an "if" than a "when." 

Is it possible that the new normal imposed by COVID-19 includes a new working model? While no one can truly predict what the future holds for a full return to the in-office 40-hour workweek, there are trends that suggest a full return to the office is a myth. Furthermore, many companies and employees may prefer new models.

An examination of the timeline of the ways the pandemic has affected the workplace illuminates the likelihood of permanent change on the horizon. Yet, some employers continue to set dates for a full return. Even as many states are hopeful that Omicron has peaked, worries about the potential for new variants have people on edge. 

When uncertainty seems to be the only certainty, should employers still make promises they might have to break? To untangle the likelihood of a full office return, we'll take a look at the history of the ups and downs of COVID from an office perspective and the effects of these changes on employees and workforce planning.

The Ever-Shifting Return to Office Date

In March 2020, when COVID work restrictions were first imposed across the country, most people assumed the workplace would return to normal within weeks. 

However, that date would still require a perfect series of events to make a desirable return-to-work atmosphere attainable. Consider how this chain of events keeps pushing the return-to-office date further into the future.

  • Initial Restrictions Extended: When federal mandates were set to expire on April 30, 2020, many states imposed shelter in place mandates that extended past the deadline. 
  • School Closings Affect Parents: Pew research shows a sharp decline of parents in the workplace in September 2020 as compared to 2019, with a percentage drop of 5.6% for mothers and 4.9% for fathers.
  • Vaccine Resistance: Although vaccines were available during spring 2021, at least 1 in 4 Americans said they would refuse a Coronavirus vaccine if offered, threatening safety at work.
  • Delta Variant: As the Delta variant spread through the U.S. in summer 2021, the percentage of companies saying they would reopen workplaces in Q3 2021 fell by more than half from when the question was asked in late April.
  • The Great Resignation: Fueled in part by the pandemic, employees quit their jobs in record numbers in 2021. As workers re-evaluate the place of work in their lives, employers will need to consider meeting these changing needs.
  • Omicron Variant: Response to the highly contagious Omicron variant mirrors that of Delta in winter 2021/2022 as large companies close open offices or push back return timelines.
  • The Great Reshuffle Continues: Among workforce trends for 2022, employees are expected to continue seeking employment positions that prioritize their mental health, physical safety, and work-life balance.

Employers and Employees Clash Over the Future of In-Person Work

Employees quit their jobs in record numbers in 2021. However, hire rates often exceeded those of quit rates. Between healthcare concerns, childcare shortages, and prioritization changes, workers were either forced to or chose to find a different position of employment. 

Some workers were laid off or furloughed, and many businesses closed permanently. Yet, as organizations look toward the future, expectations about a return to work may not be the same for workers as for employers.

Factors Affecting a Full Office Return

  • Ongoing Health Concerns: As cases of COVID have yet to make a substantial decline, in-person work can still pose a risk to the health of workers. Additionally, any public-facing job carries a high risk of infection.
  • Flexibility & Work/Life Balance: An improved work/life balance was on the minds of workers long before the pandemic. However, the pandemic forced employees out of jobs they were already dissatisfied with, forced remote work to become a reality, and made many individuals reconsider the importance of the workplace in their lives.
  • Ongoing Childcare Challenges: Even as daycares have reopened and schools returned to in-person learning, childcare provisions can change overnight with a single outbreak in one establishment.
  • The Success of Remote Work: When shelter-in-place mandates forced employers to enact remote work policies, many were doubtful of the outcome. Months of trials and challenges proved that remote work is possible in many industries where it hadn't been considered a possibility in the past.
  • Burnout/Mental Health: 89% of workers reported burnout as the reason they left their job in 2021. A global talent shortage means many companies are working short-handed. Employees working in high-risk (public) conditions and those forced to take on extra work due to a worker shortage are suffering from severe burnout. This is likely to be a major problem for employees forced back into a full-time schedule too soon.

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A Permanent Workplace Change

Job dissatisfaction was high before the pandemic. Lack of transparency, poor treatment of employees, and miscommunication led to low engagement rates and high quit rates. 

As employers struggle to avoid high turnover rates and address concerns about putting the health of their employees at risk, it's been suggested that any return to office date should be both delayed and flexible.

A third of workers who returned to the office in 2021 said the return has negatively affected their mental health. The number among parents was even higher, at 44%. When working remotely, many employees experienced fewer distractions and gained extra time in the absence of a long commute and other time-consuming practices of in-office work. 

These changes led to improved productivity and work/life balance for many. Perhaps more importantly, the ability to work anywhere means the ability to live anywhere. Nearly a quarter (22%) of workers intend to move more than 50 miles away from the office on top of the 12% who made the move during the pandemic. For many, the reasons are related to a lower cost of living as more families are living on one income.

As return-to-work dates changed during the pandemic, some employers at large companies were initially emphatic about employee returns with comments that declared remote work as an "aberration" or suggested they would be "very disappointed" if workers didn't return to work. The climb in infection rates due to Omicron softened these views. 

However, a recent survey suggests that some employers feel strongly about the return of employees, with 39% planning to fire those who refuse to return to work on-site. On the flip side of the equation, a third of all office workers say they'll quit if forced to go back to the office full time. 

The idea of meeting in the middle with a hybrid workforce is becoming more palatable for many. According to a McKinsey study, 9 out of 10 organizations expect to utilize a hybrid model post-pandemic. Yet 68% haven't offered a clear definition of what this model will look like, leading to anxiety among workers

This lack of communication could lead to burnout and loss of engagement and productivity if not addressed. While it's impossible to predict exactly how the pandemic will progress, it's crucial for employers to be as transparent about the workplace future as possible.

How Human Resource and Talent Acquisition Professionals Navigate Workforce Changes

During this time of rapid change, human resource and talent acquisition professionals must respond to new challenges each month. 

Recruiters will need ways to communicate healthcare provisions, new workplace perks, and flexible or remote roles employees seek. These changing conditions pose challenges for employers attempting to rate the success of new hires and onboarding processes.

Hiring Trends for 2022

It's clear that the term post-pandemic workplace isn't something that can describe the present. This year began with record rates of positive COVID cases and hospitalizations. Safety concerns will need to be addressed by employers before workers commit to new roles. 

As rapid turnover continues, recruiters will seek ways to communicate the perks employees are searching for.

Gartner predicts these changes will shape hiring in 2022:

  • An increase in hybrid and remote work
  • Expansion of contingent workers
  • Increased employer support for workers' financial, physical, and mental wellbeing
  • A bigger emphasis on employee skills than education or experience
  • Employers held responsible for the employee experience of on-site workers

5 Ways to Set Employee Expectations for Remote Work: Everything You Need to Know


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Recruiting Amid Healthcare Concerns and Workplace Changes

While there is hope that COVID case numbers will further decline, it's clear that healthcare risks in the office are still a concern. For many, the idea of the workplace is changing regardless of pandemic events. These events mean that recruiters will likely need to consider new tools and approaches moving forward.

Hybrid and remote work yield one of the biggest changes for recruiters and employees across several industries. While it offers to increase opportunities for workers, employers are left with concerns about effective onboarding and technical training. Recruiters and HR staff will be tasked with the burden of joining the two sides for a successful solution. While well-planned job descriptions can address both in-office concerns and remote work perks, remote recruitment poses some added challenges.

Recruiters are working with a bigger talent pool, attempting to align the right talent to take on remote tasks and technologies, and meet the evolving needs of candidates. To keep the process streamlined in a way that matches the rapid turnover faced by many employers, technology will be an important tool.

For highly effective talent acquisition professionals, advanced technology will help accomplish these crucial tasks for hiring in a changing workforce:

  • Recruitment from expanded hiring pools
  • Streamlining manual talent acquisition processes for shorter hiring times
  • Virtual onboarding
  • Skills-based hiring
  • Tracking hiring methods and new employee performance with measurable data

Make Return to Office a Smooth Transition with Crosschq

Whether you're planning a full in-office return or a flexible workforce that adapts to the environment, Crosschq is designed to take the guesswork out of hiring. From building a qualified talent pipeline and providing prehire reference checks to closed-loop analytics that measure quality of hire and retention, we make acquiring the right talent simple. 

Request a demo to see how Crosschq can help your company prepare for hiring during changing times.

Noelle Davis

by Noelle Davis

Staff Writer

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