Do office reopenings mean a return to the 'old normal'?

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Worklife readers share their views on the tricky question of returning to the office, with many calling for a flexible new future.

This article is part of Confined Grind, our crowdsourced guide to maintaining a balanced, healthy life while working and living at home amid Covid-19. Join the conversation on the BBC News LinkedIn page.

Even as Covid-19 continues and elements of daily life remain in flux, companies and institutions in many nations are looking to plan for the future. Some have already reopened their offices, while others are putting plans in place to bring employees back gradually over coming months. Others, including Google, say employees can work from home until at the least the middle of 2021. Some of those who are reopening have been vocal about the enhanced sanitation and social distancing measures they will have in place, while other workplaces' policies are less clear.

After months of working from home, the prospect of returning to the office (and the commute that may accompany it) will feel challenging to many. Many people would like to continue working from home for reasons including health concerns, childcare and work-life balance, but others are keen to get back to the office. BBC Worklife reached out to readers around the world to hear their views on this tricky issue.

'People want maximum safety measures'

From crowded commutes to office spaces with unavoidable common areas (such as bathrooms, kitchens and elevators), returning to even the most well-prepared businesses can still feel unsafe to employees. “I'm incredibly grateful we're not going back to the office yet,” says Bethanie Bailey from Manchester. “As much as I miss my coworkers and the interaction with them, I don't believe public transport is safe… There's no way people can stay safe if they're forced back into such confined spaces.” In Beijing, Hongqin Zhu says her company has not allowed employees to work from home, forcing her to take public transport to her office. “I transfer two times in [the] Beijing subway and may come across people with the virus, so I am worried.” 

Some readers said they were worried about taking public transport to get to work (Credit: Alamy)

Some readers said they were worried about taking public transport to get to work (Credit: Alamy)

Some readers fear workplaces don’t have adequate protection plans in place – or any plans at all. “There are still many companies that do not have protocols for the coexistence of workers, or a contingency plan, or even a committee in charge of contingency,” says René De La Vega from Guatemala. Stuart Woolley from Ireland points out that safety guidelines for offices aren’t to be blindly trusted: “The health of myself, my family and friends are my primary concern and will not be gambled on [by] someone else's adherence to questionably effective guidelines based on percentages of risk.”  

Others are more open to returning to the office as long as there are clear safety measures in place. "What precautions is your employer taking to make returning to the workplace a possibility for you?” asks Jan Beniquez from Utah. “No one is in any rush to go back to the workplace if there are no processes or barriers in reducing Covid-19’s spread at the workplace.” In England, Bob Ferns says, “People will need to know that maximum safety measures have been put in place, not just wiping down the desks and door handles.” 

Tze-Ern Chua from Singapore points out that in addition to employers implementing measures that reduce risk of infection, there should be a substantial need for employees to return in order to justify it. “I would like to see a flexible system in which people go to the office for tasks that are better done there, and WFH the rest of the time. In addition to helping employees feel safe and trusted, it would reduce the number of people in the office at any one time.” 

Many readers say they are concerned about whether offices are taking adequate safety measures (Credit: Getty Images)

Many readers say they are concerned about whether offices are taking adequate safety measures (Credit: Getty Images)

Since he can perform his job just as well remotely, Matt Sirrine from California says there is no reason for him to go back in and risk exposure. “Even post-vaccine, I don't need to or want to go back. Requiring people to return to an office when there is no business reason to do so is going to be a problem for a lot of companies (and the employees obviously).” 

'As productive as ever'

Safety issues aside, many people say they have experienced increased productivity and better time management while working from home, and argue there is no real business need for their jobs to be in office. “Assuming you don’t have a tangible manual position... why does anyone have to return to work in an office environment if productivity has been business-as-usual remotely?” says Karen Hildenbrand-Allery from Queensland, Australia.  

In Surrey, UK, Julia Mainwaring loves working from home and has no interest in returning to an office environment. “We are as productive as we have ever been and feel better rested and more focused on the day without the commute! Getting some more family time is also fantastic and life feels like a much better balance like this,” she says. In Florida, Valerie Wilhite echoes this, adding: “I am regularly online during the hours I would have previously been stuck in the car [commuting]. Staying home has also meant reduced emissions (public transport is not an option for my commute).” 

In California, Wayde A Reed wouldn’t mind never returning to an office again. The flexibility of remote work has given him a better work-life balance, greatly improved his productivity and saved him money on commuting, lunches and work attire. He adds that video conferencing “still provides the much-needed face to face interaction and the ability to read body language during meetings that is not possible when simply using phone calls, emails, etc”. In West Sussex, UK, Simon Cooper’s company has completely given up their office space for a full shift to remote work post Covid-19. 

Working from home has greatly improved the work-life balance of some readers (Credit: Getty Images)

Working from home has greatly improved the work-life balance of some readers (Credit: Getty Images)

'Combined way of working'

Covid-19 has given so many people a crash-course in home-working, and its benefits and drawbacks. And while many want to stay at home, some now know that they prefer to work in the office.

In Ireland, Chinweike Adigwe looks forward to a return to office, and points out that for some people, living where you work and working where you live is difficult. “Your workplace is all you wake up to, [so] it’s a great relief being able to wake up [and] not see work in front of you.” In Warsaw, Poland, Joanna Pyrak says she misses her coworkers and is also happy to finally be able to “‘evict’ the office” out of her home.

So, is there a happy medium; a balance that both favours personal preference and productivity? According to many employees, having in-office and remote work options would be the best way forward, even in a post-pandemic world.

“Working in-office needs to be offered only as [an] option. If you have the ability to work from home you should be allowed to... Allowing people to work from home allows the company to hire more talented employees that may not be residentially close to the office,” says Jessie K in Detroit.

In Albania, Ilda E has mixed feelings: “I find working from home convenient, but also boring. I believe that employers should learn from this experience to allow employees to work from home whenever they feel like, instead of imposing office work. I want to believe that a combined way of working could be more productive.”

In Manchester, Olivia Fisher’s company has already given employees these options: “We are working alternately in the office and at home. It's working really well; we're productive while at home and we bounce off each other's energy while in the office. This biggest issue will be commuting into work with more people on public transport but a lot of us have taken up cycling, running and walking to work instead.”

Readers suggested that flexible options combining remote work and in-office time would be the best outcome (Credit: Getty Images)

Readers suggested that flexible options combining remote work and in-office time would be the best outcome (Credit: Getty Images)

Advocates of both in-office and remote options emphasise that there needs to be trust on the side of the employer. “Work should be measured in output and managed that way. If a staff member works from home and consistently misses deadlines then they are likely going to miss those deadlines in the office. Location doesn't change people,” says Adrian Shiel in Victoria, Australia. In New South Wales, Australia, Emma Suddards says it’s important to ask yourself if your organisation measures performance on the number of hours you “keep a seat warm” or on your ideas, innovations or services.

Ultimately, many see this as a chance to reshape work in a more flexible and open-minded way, with a focus on output rather than location. Most say they hope there will never be a return to the ‘old-normal’, and believe that the balance in terms of in-office and remote work will be a dialogue between employers and employees. As Sam Jonas from Hemel Hempstead puts it, “a happy and efficient work culture can never be created in an unsafe or uncomfortable environment”.