people working in office
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

As the New York area and the nation opens up gradually after the first wave of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, people are thinking about returning to their workplaces. We’re talking to many people about what that looks like for them.

“We don’t call it ‘return to work’ — because we’ve been working all along,” said one person who works at a big New York-based financial services firm, speaking on condition of anonymity and not naming the company. “We call it ‘return to the office.’ No one wants the impression that they have not been working while they are at home.” I got a deep dive with her on how the planning is going for her company and its workers nationwide.

Of course, some people have been in their workplaces since the start of the pandemic. But many of us have been working from home, and employers are choosing a wide array of plans and measures to open up workplaces.

Return-to-the-office practices are all over the map, we’ve learned. Some places they take temperatures — other places they have decided that a temperature check means little, so why bother? Read more here.

What, how and when?

Our source is not making the plan but is communicating about it inside of the company. “Our employees want to know what does return to the office look like, and when will it happen?” she said. “We don’t have a lot of answers right now, except that the health and safety of employees comes first, and we won’t bring them back until we know we can do it safely.” She said the company is working closely with local and state governments and officials, operating within Centers for Disease Control and Board of Health guidelines.

“We will probably lag behind the official openings of the states,” she said, using a phased approach and carefully considering both the job being done and the place — obviously New York and its big workspaces are different from suburban office parks elsewhere.

On the way out of the office, she said, the company had been using a series of business resiliency measures to move people home in phases. For example, a team of 100 people might have one-third at home one day, one-third the next day and the final third on the third day. The company used that to tackle issues that came up “preventing you from working remotely.” That was in train, escalated the week of March 9, and then in mid-March came the order that everyone would be at home the following week.

Transportation issues and child care

On the way back, she said, “there’s a lot that we are hearing and learning about the virus causing folks to look at how the workplace is set up. My gut is that we will go back in various locations depending on the state and local health guidelines and also on the commute to work. In locations where there is no or not a lot of public transportation and people are driving in private cars, we will probably go back faster. In those cities and locations where people are relying on mass public transportation, we will probably go back at a slower rate.”

It won’t be everyone all at once, she said, but gradually, over time — and “we will give people plenty of notice,” one or two weeks, if not significantly more time to figure out how.

Another factor, she said is child care: “How can you bring people back if child care is an issue?”

Another big issue is people’s health. she said. “There may be people who are high-risk or have people in their homes who are high risk,” she said. Those will be case-by-case, working with managers, and those people may work from home indefinitely.

Down the road, more flexibility

“I think we will see much more acceptance of flexibility in the workplace,” she said. The flexibility that we talked about 20 years ago in this regard — “people talked about it and you saw it in pockets, but at my company it was not the norm” — will remain common, she predicted.

“My team had absolutely no issue. There are nine of us — I was able to test over three days, but everybody generally worked from home at least one day a month anyway” before the pandemic, she said.

The company has a large work force, and there is a great deal of density in places like her New York office space, she said. “Like most other companies, we had moved to open workspaces and long trading desks,” she said. “You may or may not have your own fixed seat. I do, but I have six feet on either side of me at a bench desk. But certainly not six feet between me and the next person” in other directions.

“We’re having to look at that,” she said. “I don’t think there will be a move to put up partitions and give people cubicles. I do think there will be a move to make it less dense. We won’t go from 0 to 1,000 people in the building all at once. There will be more flexibility, and I think it will last for a long time.”

She said she believes we won’t return “for a long time” to what the workplace was like pre-Covid.

Stepping up cleaning crews and removing coffeepots will be part of the return, she predicted. And then questions like “how many people can use the elevator at once?” and “how many people can use the restroom at once?”

How the stages will work

The staged return, she predicted, will focus on things like who’s at home and not able to perform all components of their job at home. These will be in the first tier, she said.

“It will also be location-specific: That same employee in a major metro center will likely go back more slowly than an employee in a suburban campus with a private car, or in a less-hard-hit area.”

Then a second tier might involve employees who are productive at home but would be more productive in the office. The third tier would be people who are as productive at home as in the office. Those might be manager by manager decisions, she said.

Who’s doing the planning? In her company, she said, the real estate team and the business resiliency team are central — they have been disciplined about doing business resiliency checks every quarter, she said. Senior managers from each function or line of business who know the work and what needs to get done are representing the business point of view, she said, and human resources is also involved.

A whole lot of Zoom meetings

Zoom rolled out instantly to employees at home, she said. “We have orchestrated more meetings to stay in touch with employees, and to stay connected,” she said.

“It’s a different kind of management when you’re all remote,” she said. “People always wonder, if you’re working from home are you really working? That’s gone out the window, because everyone’s working all the time.”

Employees have a lot of questions — how long before we go back? There are people who can’t wait to get back to the office, she said, and others who don’t want to go back. If they’re avoiding a commute, using that time to do more fitness, they want to stay where they are.

“We also realize that some people being remote and some in the office is different from everyone being remote,” she said. “We’re very collaborative. We prioritize and value teamwork when the whole team is in the office. But if you have one or two people missing, there’s a different dynamic. Do they have the water-cooler conversation, or the meeting after the meeting?

“When you move everyone home, it’s different. We’re thinking about how do we keep our teams together when we return to the office in cycles.”

Who can’t work from home?

So who cannot do their work at home? Mailroom staff, cleaners, for example. Cafeteria, front desk, security. People who work in branches whose jobs can only be done in branches. Tellers. Personal bankers who open accounts for people. “We never had that as work-from-home before,” she said. “Are they now available to do that at home? Yes, but is that really the best way for them to service their clients, when most of their clients want to come into the branch?” She also mentioned call center representatives — for when people dispute bills and credit card claims. “Those folks were not set up to work from home. They were in call centers. We scrambled to put them home.”

Other details remain to be worked out, particularly given this company’s emphasis on collaboration and in-person meetings.

“There will be a lot about going back to the office that will seem completely normal, and some things that will be complete shockers,” she said. “I don’t think anyone believed we could run the entire thing from home without huge loss of productivity and a dwindling of resources. But that hasn’t happened.”

Other office experiences

An occupational therapist at a nursing home told us that every staff member there is getting a nasal swab test twice a week. If they don’t take the test, they can’t come to work. If they don’t pass the test, then they have to go into quarantine. She pointed out that this twice-a-week testing regimen is very expensive for the company, and that the money for testing has to come from somewhere. Read her interview here.

Some people on the front lines were not tested at all in the early weeks of the pandemic. This surprised us because we all thought we were abstaining from testing so we could make testing kits available for front-line workers, but a doc we know didn’t get tested for weeks. Read his interview here.

Some places they take temperatures — other places they have decided that a temperature check means little, so why bother? Read more here.

There are regulatory issues related to the Equal Employment Opportunity Act (EEOC) and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Read more here.

Jeanne Pinder

Jeanne Pinder  is the founder and CEO of ClearHealthCosts. She worked at The New York Times for almost 25 years as a reporter, editor and human resources executive, then volunteered for a buyout and founded...