Executives had a good feeling about January 10, 2022, when all 7,000 DocuSign employees around the world would finally return to work.
That deadline wouldn’t be like May 2020, which was always a fantasy, or August 2020, which was a bit ambitious, or October 2021, a plan derailed by the Delta variant. The fourth time, it’s the charm.
“Every time we delay that, we push back the inevitable,” said Joan Burke, head of human resources, in an interview in late November. âAt some point, DocuSign will be open. “
That a certain time is no longer in January. The Omicron variant intervened. Just as Ford Motor’s companies at Lyft did last week, DocuSign has postponed again. Instead of a new date came the company’s promise to “reassess our plans as 2022 unfolds.”
âEmployees understand that the evolving nature of what we are dealing with makes it impossible to predict,â Ms. Burke said this month. “I don’t even remember all the dates we put there, and I put them there.”
Return to office dates were once like talismans; the CEOs who put them in place seemed to have some form of power over the coming months. Then the dates were postponed, and postponed again. At some point, the spell was broken. For many businesses, plans to reopen offices have lost their fear factor, becoming wishful thinking rather than a sign of the future filled with awakenings, commutes, and pants that actually button up. The date of RTO has passed. It has been changed to “we will get back to you”.
“The only dishonest companies are the ones that give employees certainty,” said Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford professor who advises dozens of general managers. âAs a parent you can hide things from your kids, but as a CEO you can’t from adult employees reading the news. “
Some workers have returned to their cubicles in recent months, with the office occupancy rate in the United States rising from 33% in August to 40% this month, according to data from Kastle Systems, a building security firm. But visions of large-scale reopening and mandatory returns, which formed during the vaccine rollout last spring, have remained nebulous.
A survey of 238 executives in late August, conducted by Gartner, found that two-thirds of organizations had delayed plans to return to the office due to news of coronavirus variants. Apple, Ford, CNN and Google are just a handful of employers who have announced postponements, along with Lyft, which has said workers will be required to return to the office no earlier than 2023.
Earlier this fall, there had been high hopes that the first quarter 2022 office reopening dates could meet. Cushman & Wakefield, one of the world’s largest commercial real estate companies, released a September report projecting February 2022 as an ‘inflection point’, when at least 70% of the world’s population would be vaccinated or previously infected with coronavirus, which would facilitate RTO dates. stay next. But some of the company’s projections are already tested. His report began by specifying that “the Delta strain represents the latest wave of the pandemic.”
The pandemic has not been an optimal time for assumptions of any kind. Some employers have gone ahead and set them anyway, trying to position themselves as bold decision-makers by setting concrete RTO dates. Many have since abandoned this level of specificity.
âPeople have protected themselves appropriately this time around and they understand that this is a dialogue with their employees, not a mandate,â said Zach Dunn, co-founder of the platform. of Robin Office Space Management. âIf that sounds a little kumbaya, maybe. But the reality is, people are learning that sharing the intent of their plan to return is more important than sharing the plan itself.
In other words, it is better to communicate the ambiguity than to be wrong, according to Dunn. Executives are used to projecting a sense of certainty into company policies out of necessity; it is difficult to get people to follow the rules when even leaders do not believe they are applicable. The bumpy road to reopening the offices, however, tested this confident and rigid management philosophy.
âThe average CEO has very little control over the state and progress of a global pandemic,â Dunn continued. “It’s like in a time of crisis they should show leadership by sharing a clear vision of what to expect, but that backfires most people.”
Julia Anas, director of human resources at Qualtrics, a Utah-based software company, is one of the executives who deteriorated on strict RTO deadlines. In August, as his team’s optimism about the state of the virus changed, Qualtrics indefinitely delayed plans for a return to power in September, promising to give its nearly 5,000 employees at least one notice. at least 30 days before having to come to their office. .
âWe decided as a management team: what was magical about these dates? “,” Said Ms. Anas. “It was extremely liberating to say, ‘We’re going to see how it goes and we’re not looking to find a date.'”
She is troubled by the possibility that they are still working from home in March, two years after they packed their desks for the first time. But with coronavirus infections skyrocketing, Ms Anas is relieved the company doesn’t have to weigh the merits of a comeback in early 2022, leaving workers worriedly awaiting updates.
âIf we had pushed the box away until January, they would be obsessed with this,â she said. âWe stay focused on the job. It’s just a distraction. “
For many organizational leaders, responding to the anxieties of their workforce has been the one constant in the RTO process.
With Delta’s spread, Jessica Saranich, who heads US operations for productivity software company Monday.com, received a flurry of notes from colleagues: Are we really going back to the office in August? Last month brought the news of Omicron, with a new set of questions: what does this mean for the offsite rally in January, with its promise of free food, partying and a DJ in Miami. ? Ms Saranich’s team delayed her return to office date three times, leaving some employees to plead for more permanence in company policies.
âSometimes our team will say please, just make a decision, choose something, get us back to the office or have us stay away,â Ms. Saranich said. âBut it’s not something we want to rush. Being able to deal with the discomfort and say we don’t know is a great gift we can give to our team.
Yet many organizations aiming for a return to early 2022 have not budged.
Express Employment Professionals, a personnel provider in Oklahoma City, aims to bring half of its 300 workers back to their newly remodeled headquarters on Jan.15. The company initially reopened its offices in July as part of a phased reintegration plan, which was temporarily curtailed in September. Keith McFall, COO, believes clear RTO dates serve as a force of stability for workers going through months of turmoil.
âWe’ve learned that it’s best for our employees to have some certainty in their lives and expect to know when they might need to move from home to work,â he said, â always with the qualifier that we would let them know 30 days before that date if we are going to stick with that date or postpone it again.
Mr McFall is optimistic about Express’s plan to return to early 2022. But like other executives keen to see their employees in person, he acknowledged that the news from Omicron, which is a variation of perhaps more transmissible, brought a new doubt.
“I probably can’t say the words I said to myself when I first heard of it,” said Marina GonzÃ¡lez, head of talent management at the Atlanta Payrix company, who is hoping for a return. to office in early 2022, although they haven’t set a date for that. “Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, something else happens.”
The uncertainty of this period has prompted some companies to drop more than their RTO dates.
Charity: Water, a non-profit organization, previously occupied 25,000 square feet in Tribeca and reopened a small office last spring. Scott Harrison, the organization’s chief executive, who had moved from New York to Nashville during the pandemic, felt his employees wanted him to set clear expectations as to when they should report.
âWe saw a lot of companies playing it month after month and we wanted to give our team members a much wider visibility,â he said.
But this line of sight does not include an RTO date. Workers weren’t using office space, Harrison found. So instead of setting a timeline for the company’s return, he chose a different date: by March 2022, Charity: water will end its lease.