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The Magical Mystery Return to the Office

Some people working in an office in an alternate reality

It’s now been over a year and a half since COVID-19 became a global pandemic. The early months thereafter caused marked disruptions in nearly all aspects of our lives. Supply chains became delayed, businesses shut down, and many of us found ourselves working remotely. But as time passed, the assumption was that things would eventually return to some type of normalcy. Companies delaying a return to the office would soon require employees to come back to their cubicles. But with each date set for a return to the office after COVID, coronavirus case increases and variants emerged. This has subsequently caused many companies to pulled back reopening plans, much to their disappointment.

In some ways, the return to the office after COVID has been like the boy who cried wolf. But instead of the boy who falsely claimed a wolf was near, businesses face the real deal. COVID cases and variants are real, and in order to protect their employees, they must address the problem. This has resulted in many missteps and broken promises with companies repeatedly delaying a return to the office. And now, it is truly a mystery if some of these businesses will ever return to full force in the office. Many are reevaluating their situation as a new COVID variant appears a few months after the last. For some, a full reopening may never happen if the current patterns of COVID persist.

“A year and a half ago, we thought this would be for a very short time. But the pandemic has thrown us many curves, and employers need to continue to be nimble.” – Jeff Levin-Scherz, Population Health Leader at Willis Towers Watson

Major Companies Delaying a Return to the Office

Naturally, most large firms, as well as smaller ones, shifted to remote work early in the course of the pandemic. Risks associated with COVID-19 certainly justified these policies as the number of deaths escalated quickly. But many believed this would be a temporary move, lasting months at the worst. In fact, many began predicting a return to the office after COVID by the fall of 2020. Unfortunately, this didn’t become reality as COVID cases spiked again around that time. Unphased, companies then became optimistic once again once vaccinations became available. But this time, the Delta variant again led to companies delaying a return to the office. And now, the same thing is again happening as the Omicron variant throws firms another curve ball. For some, this will be the fourth time they aborted plans for a return to the office after COVID.

An ancient office, before the plague hit
Companies delaying a return to the office shouldn’t be a surprise anymore–but somehow it is.

The latest round of companies delaying a return to the office is due to the unpredictability of the Omicron variant. Though it is believed to be less deadly, it appears to spread rapidly and be more resistant to vaccine protections. Given this, companies like Google, Meta-Facebook, and Ford have placed their return to the office after COVID plans on hold. Lyft has actually stated its employees do not have to return for all of 2022. Based on the rise in COVID cases in the United Kingdom and Scandinavia due to the Omicron variants, businesses are weary. But at the same time, they’re also extremely frustrated, as are their employees. The lack of certainty is perhaps the most troublesome aspect for some, though others see it as an opportunity.

“Sometimes our team will say please just make a decision, pick something, make us come back to the office or make us be remote. But it’s not something that we want to rush. To be able to lean into the discomfort and say we don’t know is a great gift that we can give to our team.” – Jessica Saranich, U.S. Group Operations Manager,

Changing Dialogues About a Return to the Office After COVID

For most companies, stating a precise date for a return to the office after COVID was believed to be important. CEOs would predict that their employees could expect to be back by a particular date in order to provide certainty. But as each date has come and gone, such statements look less and less authentic. Vaccines and COVID pills aren’t likely to change this either. (Read up on the anti-COVID pills in the works in this Bold story.) The inherent uncertainty that the coronavirus has introduced has humbled even the largest firms. This has led to companies delaying a return to the office to adopt a different approach. Rather than assuming they can anticipate an actual reopening of their offices, they acknowledge its dynamic nature. This shift has caused many companies to see their situations in a different perspective.

More than anything, employees want the truth when it comes to company plans. Transparency is king in this regard. Therefore, companies are increasingly admitting that they are unable to predict the future when it comes to COVID. Rather than pretending they can, some are simply dealing with the current situation as it comes. For some businesses, that means going all-in on a remote work environment indefinitely. For others, it means creating a more dynamic workforce and work environment to deal with change. And others are simply acknowledging that knowing an actual date for a return to the office after COVID is impossible. In doing so, workers are less affected when companies delaying a return to the office extend their reopening dates.

(The stats don’t lie: remote work in some form is here to stay–read this Bold story on it.)

“Omicron has made me realize work life will never return to the way it was pre-COVID. It made me realize how working from home is likely to keep employees, their families and also our clients safe.” – Gisela Girard, President of Creative Civilization

Fantasy or Future?

By their very nature, viruses adapt and change in order to survive. In this regard, perhaps businesses should do the same. While many firms dream of returning to pre-pandemic operations, this may represent nostalgia rather than realistic thinking. In all likelihood, COVID-19 will continue to mutate, and new variants will keep emerging. This is why a return to the office after COVID represents more of a magical mystery than something written in stone. For now, companies delaying a return to the office is smart, especially in terms of employee safety. But long-term, they may need to embrace a more dynamic approach to their operations. Only time will tell if full reopenings ever take place. But waiting to see if that actually happens instead of adapting could be the demise of some businesses.


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