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What are business leaders’ responsibilities for a return-to-office strategy in this confusing new era of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The anticipation for the end of restrictions in the UK on July 19th was eclipsed by the fear of rising cases before the day even arrived. In the past week, the nation has been wrestling with dramatic mixed messaging to determine how to reengage in social activity, watching self-isolation instructions from NHS Track and Trace skyrocket in a ‘pingdemic’[1] whilst reports of COVID cases have begun to plummet without clear understanding as to why[2]. This onus on the individual is particularly burdensome for the business leaders creating their office reopening plans, who must juggle their employees’ well-being, health and safety, and satisfaction at work. We surveyed 17 leaders from the UK’s most preeminent organisations to understand how businesses across industries are determining their own futures in the new hybrid landscape – or rather, avoiding making such a decision.

One thing is for certain: the Work from Home model is here to stay, whatever the restrictions or lack thereof. Only 3 of the organisations we spoke to already have or will implement a fixed schedule for their teams to work in the office by August, with 2 more intending to do so in September. And still, their plans to work in-office are just 1-3 days per week so as continue to enjoy the benefits of remote working. Astoundingly, the other 70% of interviewees reported to have no guidelines in place nor intention to implement any in the near future, including 4 major global banking institutions.

It’s easy to speculate upon their reasoning for maintaining a WFH precedence; it could be any combination of increased productivity, employee preference to avoid the daily commute, ease of communication across international teams, or simply no desire to re-uproot the virtual processes which were so exhausting to implement just over a year ago. On top of all this, leaders face the threat of employee dissatisfaction and even bad PR if they are premature in their return-to-office planning, as seen in the media focus on Goldman Sachs’ plans and abrupt reversal.[3] With the risk and unpredictability of office closures and isolation requirements, it is all too tempting to set no expectations at all, despite warnings from both mental health researchers[4] and the business community[5] on the impact of loneliness.

Instead, the office has become a space for individuals and smaller teams to utilise as and when they see fit. Organisations from across retail, consumer goods, automotive, and pharmaceuticals have reported varying degrees of office availability as they attempt to define a working culture which fosters well-being, inclusivity, and safety whilst considering significant changes in most everyone’s personal and professional lives. However, in 3 of our discussions, this flexible approach was in reality a transferral of the onus from the C-Suite to team leaders to set guidance for their staff, creating disparities across departments with an awkward social pressure to adhere to recommendations which are not compulsory.

Simon Walker, Managing Partner of Kubrick, reflects on the importance of setting a clear return-to-office plan:

"Throughout the various stages of lockdown, our office has been equipped to safely host staff who are in need of a better working environment than they have at home as we have been highly concerned about the long-term mental health impacts of isolation. Many of our Kubrick consultants are junior professionals in their very first job and doing so from their crowded kitchen table or bedroom in shared housing. We feel it is our responsibility to guide them through this confusing time, provide as much support as we can, and ensure they don’t miss out on the formative experiences of collaboration and encouragement that come with physically working together.

“Implementing our part-time office schedule in August, which aligns with the end of isolation requirements for those with two doses of the vaccine[6], has had its setbacks and challenges. However, as a business leader, I strongly believe that we need to be constantly communicating with our teams, be honest when we don’t know all the answers, and listen to how everyone is coping. We have enjoyed a whole host of benefits from a WFH culture, which we will be glad to see stay, but are looking forward to hearing the excited buzz of the office once more.”

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