'Morale is low': Workers grow weary of 'The Great Wait' to return to offices

In much of corporate America, January 2022 is the new Labor Day 2021 as the target date for a widespread return-to-office movement.

As of late August, 66% of organizations were delaying office reopenings due to Covid variants, according to a Gartner survey of 238 executive leaders. Many big names including Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Starbucks have postponed their return plans into the new year during a period of time some workplace consultants are calling "The Great Wait."

But after 18 months of working from home during the pandemic, office workers are simultaneously growing tired of waiting for news of their callback and also skeptical of announcements when they come. For some, they're using the added stretch of time to advocate for more flexibility within their employer's ever-changing plans.

'The anxiety is real'

Workplace strategists have consistently advised leaders to be transparent with their decision timeline and what factors they're taking into consideration, and to give as much advance notice as possible for people to prepare for their return.

Not everyone is following this guidance.

Doug Underwood, 40, works as an IT professional near Dayton, Ohio. Up until the second week of the September, he was told he would be expected back in the office full-time by September 16, which gave him "anxiety and concern" regarding rising Covid cases due to the delta variant. "Is it even safe to return to work?" he wondered. He splits custody of his 8-year-old son and worries that, by going into an office regularly, he could increase the risk of his child getting sick in his care, as he's too young to be vaccinated.

Underwood says he's had panic attacks some of the few times he's had to go into the office, as he finds he's the only person there wearing a mask and keeping distance from others. During one recent visit, Underwood spoke with a colleague who disclosed he was not vaccinated and had no immediate plans to get the shot.

"The anxiety is real, and I can see so many people getting PTSD from this," Underwood says of returning to the office.

But just last Friday, less than a week before their scheduled return, Underwood's employer called a virtual meeting and announced their offices were postponing their full reopening until further notice due to the state of the virus. A new timeline will be evaluated on a monthly basis, Underwood says, at which point employees will return in-person three days a week.

"I would appreciate more time at home, but I have to deal with a job and follow what the company says it's doing," Underwood says. "That's part of choosing to be with a company. You can voice your opinion, but the leaders make the decisions."

Added challenges for caregivers

Near Newark, New Jersey, Francisco Miranda is considering whether his employer's rigid return-to-office plan might force his hand in finding a new job elsewhere. The 35-year-old works as a paralegal and, at least for now, is expected back in the office by mid-October.

But at the beginning of the pandemic, Miranda moved home and has been a caretaker for his older parents, including his father who has ongoing health problems following a heart attack five years ago.

It gives Miranda peace of mind to be there for his family when they need him. For example, he says that two weeks ago, his mother came to his home office during the day because his father was having chest pains and needed to go to the hospital.

"I happened to be here, so I could take him," Miranda says. "In an alternate world if I were back in the office, I would have to take off work, get into my car, drive home. Who knows if it'd be too late by then."

Miranda is reluctant to give up this family responsibility for paid work he can readily do from home: "If I'm working from an office when something truly tragic happens, I know I'll be kicking myself."

Workers call for greater flexibility

When his office reopens, Miranda will be expected back three days a week, but he and his colleagues must change their in-office days each week. Miranda says this is to discourage people from consistently working Monday and Fridays from home. He says supervisors seem unwilling to accommodate any flexibility, such as his request to work in-office two days a week instead of three, or some colleagues who actually want to return in-person full-time.

"Morale is low," Miranda says, but he's not sure finding a new job elsewhere is an option. The tight labor market, where there are more open jobs than people to fill them, isn't benefitting everyone equally.

Workplace leaders began predicting a mass resignation in early 2021 as vaccination efforts ramped up and economic recovery improved. Some 65% of employees are looking for a new job right now, according to an August poll of 1,007 full- and part-time U.S. workers conducted by PwC. That's nearly double the 35% of workers who said they were seeking new work in May.

Already, millions have quit their jobs during this summer's so-called "great resignation."

Workplace strategists have stressed that employers should pay greater attention to the needs and requests of current employees to avoid costly turnover.

Even still, "our law firm has made it seem it doesn't matter what we say," Miranda says. "We were waiting for an opportunity to enter a dialogue to accommodate what each employee wants, but that ability was taken away. We were just told, 'This is what it's going to be.'"

Check out:

For many workers, the return to offices has become ‘The Great Wait.’ It’s costing employers millions

Workers could face new burnout symptoms when returning to the office—here's how employers can help

Companies are already pushing their return-to-office dates to 2022—why some experts say it's a 'smart approach'

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