Getting Back to the Workplace: To Be or Not to Be (In the Office)

Photo by Anelale Nájera on Unsplash

Part II in the new Fenway Law series, “Getting Back to the Workplace” — a guide for businesses emerging from COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Part I covered Mandatory Vaccinations in the Workplace.

Let’s talk about what the post-pandemic workplace might look like for office dwellers.

With recent approval of a third COVID-19 vaccine in the United States, declining infection and mortality rates, and warmer spring and summer days ahead, employers are thinking about making permanent the changes that have upended traditional workplace norms in last year. In a post-pandemic workplace, who comes back to the office?

State level restrictions are easing the path for return. In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker lifted or modified a number of COVID-19 restrictions across public and private spaces last week, with office spaces are now at 50% capacity (or, a maximum of 10 persons per 1,000 square feet of office space). However, Commonwealth Magazine reports that as many as half of all state employees may continue to work from home in a part-time capacity after all pandemic restrictions are lifted, and many large institutional employers have told most workers not to expect a return prior to June, and in some cases as late as September or into early 2022.

This hesitance is in line with a number of public health officials, who have warned against returning to the normal routine too quickly while also balancing the impacts of the pandemic on the broader community. Michael Colanti, a Zuckerman Fellow in the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and a former emergency management planner for the Boston Public Health Commission, says “risk mitigation is not risk elimination, and any risk assessment must take into account a comprehensive set of factors beyond COVID-19 transmission rates. While the threat posed by the virus remains with us, we must continue to assess the risk tradeoffs in other areas that are also experiencing severe health impacts, such as mental health, substance abuse, food and housing insecurity created by loss of employment, and the long term consequences of lost education for our children.”

The Hybrid Approach

With uncertainty about the duration of current safety measures, some in the tech industry are adopting a fully-remote work policy where there is no default work location. As we discussed in Part 1 of the Getting Back to the Workplace series, Boston-based marketing software firm Drift is on the leading edge of this “hybrid” approach, abandoning large traditional office space for smaller, “conversation spaces” that can be used for client meetings and team collaboration work. The experience of the last year has been a proof point for knowledge-based professional services organizations in the financial services, consulting and legal sectors. Tech giants Facebook, Twitter and Google are each adopting a similar approach, with employees agreeing to reside within a certain distance from work hubs in order to remain available for in-person meetings and other tasks.

For many other organizations, in-office staffing will return as pandemic restrictions continue to ease. A study conducted by the consulting firm Mercer six weeks into the pandemic (May 2020) found that employers expect one in five full-time employees to work in a remote capacity after the pandemic. According to another recent report from McKinsey, that would represent a four-fold increase from pre-pandemic levels and trigger a profound effect on an organization’s footprint and related costs. A Global Workplace Analytics estimate that the average employer can reduce $11,000 in costs per employee per year for every person who works remotely half of the time and $10,000 per worker per year in real estate costs alone.

Nevertheless, at some point in the next year companies can expect nearly 80% of the pre-pandemic workforce to return to the office in a full-time or hybrid capacity.

Planning for the New Normal

In this environment, human resources are dusting off their work from home policies in light of our recent shared experiences, and the prospect for a permanent shift in the way organizations conduct work. The concept of remote work is not a new one: the EEOC has maintained guidelines on remote work since at least 2003. However, the past year has been a crash course in figuring out remote operations while maintaining operations. Many enterprises have seen considerable success: 67% of workplaces saw productivity remain level, and 27% saw an increase.

In the meantime, employers have become accustomed to returning workers (and customers) to the office in a safe manner: mask wearing, social distancing, sanitary practices and similar efforts will remain in place for the foreseeable future. In this “new normal,” key organizational considerations focus on the right mix of risk and oversight, flexibility and collaboration, cost and productivity.

In crafting a permanent remote work policy, organizations should consider:

The Takeaway

Employers should be in the process of reviewing remote work policies now in order to be prepared for the post-pandemic workplace. Businesses must take care to articulate a non-discriminatory rationale for treating remote and in-person workers differently in an organization, and leaders should consult with counsel and human resources executives to ensure that operations in the post-pandemic workplace are safe, productive, and — most of all — prepared for the next challenge.

Michael Loconto is a Boston-based attorney and consultant, and can help your business think through post-pandemic workforce strategies and crisis management planning. Keep an eye on this space for upcoming previews of the Labor and Education departments in the Biden administration. If you like what you read, follow Mike on Medium and subscribe through Substack.

Boston, MA attorney and consultant specializing in labor and employment law, dispute resolution and government relations.

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