THE NEW YORK TIMES

The end of a return-to-office date

the-end-of-a-return-to-office-date

The executives had a good feeling about January 10, 2022 – the date when DocuSign’s 7,000 employees worldwide would finally come back to work.

This deadline wouldn’t be like that earlier one, May 2020, which was always a fantasy, or August 2020, which was a bit ambitious, or October 2021, a plan derailed by the delta variant. Fourth time’s the charm.

“Every time we delay this we’re pushing off the inevitable,” said Joan Burke, chief people officer, in an interview in late November. “At some point in time, DocuSign is going to be open.”

That some point in time is no longer in January. The omicron variant interjected. Just as companies from Ford Motor to Lyft have done in the past week, DocuSign postponed again. In place of a new date came the company’s promise to “reassess our plans as 2022 unfolds.”

“Employees understand the evolving nature of what we’re dealing with makes it impossible to predict,” Burke said this month. “I can’t even remember all the dates we’ve put out there, and I’m the one who put them out there.”

Return-to-office dates used to be like talismans; the CEOs who set them seemed to wield some power over the shape of the months to come. Then the dates were postponed, and postponed again. At some point, the spell was broken. For many companies, office-reopening plans have lost their fear factor, coming to seem like wishful thinking rather than a sign of futures filled with alarm clocks, commutes and pants that actually button. The RTO date is gone. It has been replaced with “We’ll get back to you.”

“The only companies being dishonest are the ones giving employees certainty,” said Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford professor who advises dozens of CEOs. “As a parent, you can hide stuff from your kids, but as a CEO, you can’t do that to adult employees who read the news.”

Some workers have returned to their cubicles in recent months, with office occupancy across the United States rising from 33% in August to 40% this month, according to data from Kastle Systems, a building security firm. But the visions of full-scale reopenings and mandatory returns, which formed as vaccines rolled out last spring, have remained nebulous.

A late-August survey of 238 executives, conducted by Gartner, found that two-thirds of organizations had delayed their return to office plans because of news about coronavirus variants. Apple, Ford, CNN and Google are just a handful of the employers that announced postponements, along with Lyft, which said the earliest that workers would be required to return to the office is 2023.

Earlier this fall, there had been high hopes that the first-quarter 2022 office-reopening dates might hold up. Cushman & Wakefield, one of the world’s biggest commercial real estate companies, released a September report projecting February as an “inflection point,” when at least 70% of the global population would be vaccinated or previously infected with coronavirus, making RTO dates easier to stick by. But some of the firm’s projections are already being tested. Its report began by laying out the assumption that “the delta strain represents the final wave of the pandemic.”

The pandemic hasn’t been an optimal time for assumptions of any kind. Some employers went ahead and made them anyway, trying to position themselves as bold decision-makers by setting concrete RTO dates. Many have since given up on that level of specificity.

“Folks have hedged appropriately this time around and they understand that it’s a dialogue with their employees, not a mandate,” said Zach Dunn, co-founder of the office space management platform Robin. “If that sounds a little kumbaya, maybe. But the reality is, folks are learning that sharing the intention of their return plan is more important than sharing the plan itself.”

In other words, it’s better to communicate ambiguity than to be wrong, according to Dunn. Executives are accustomed to projecting a sense of certainty about company policies, by necessity; it’s tough to get people to follow rules when even the leaders don’t believe they’re enforceable. The bumpy road to office reopenings, though, has tested that ethos of confident, rigid management.

“The average CEO has very little command over the state and progress of a global pandemic,” Dunn said. “It feels like, in a moment of crisis, they should be showing leadership by sharing a clear vision for what they expect, but that’s backfired for most folks.”

Julia Anas, chief people officer at Qualtrics, a Utah-based software company, is an executive who has soured on hard-and-fast RTO timelines. In August, as her team’s optimism about the state of the virus tempered, Qualtrics delayed its plans for a September return to office indefinitely, promising to give its nearly 5,000 employees at least 30 days’ notice before they’d have to report to their desks.

“We decided as a leadership team, ‘What was magical about these dates?’” Anas said. “It was extremely liberating saying, ‘We’re going to see how this nets out and we’re not solving for a date.’”

She is unsettled by the possibility that they will still be working from home in March, two years since they first packed up their desks. But with coronavirus infections spiking, Anas is relieved that the company doesn’t have to weigh the merits of an early-2022 return, leaving workers to wait worriedly for updates.

“If we had kicked the can to January, they’d be fixated on that,” she said. “We keep focused on the work. This is just a distraction.”

For many organizational leaders, addressing the anxieties of their workforce has been the only constant in the RTO process.

With the spread of delta, Jessica Saranich, who runs US operations at the productivity software company Monday.com, got a flurry of notes from colleagues: Will we really go back to the office in August? Last month brought the news of omicron, with a fresh set of questions: What does this mean for the January off-site gathering, with its promise of free food, partying and a Miami DJ? Saranich’s team has delayed its return to office date three times, which has left some employees pleading for more permanence in the company’s policies.

“Sometimes our team will say please just make a decision, pick something, make us come back to the office or make us be remote,” Saranich said. “But it’s not something that we want to rush. To be able to lean into the discomfort and say we don’t know is a great gift that we can give to our team.”

Still, plenty of organizations aiming for an early-2022 return haven’t budged.

Express Employment Professionals, a staffing provider in Oklahoma City, aims to bring half of its 300 workers back to their newly remodeled headquarters Jan. 15. The company had originally reopened its office in July in a phased reentry plan, which was temporarily scaled back in September. Keith McFall, chief operating officer, feels that clear RTO dates serve as a force of stability for workers navigating months of tumult.

“We’ve learned that it’s best for our employees to have some certainty in their lives and an expectation of when they may have to transition from home to work,” he said, “always with the qualifier that we’d let them know 30 days before that date whether we’ll remain with that date or defer it again.”

McFall has been optimistic about Express’ plan for an early-2022 return. But like other executives eager to see their employees in person, he acknowledged that the news about omicron, which is a possibly more transmissible variant, brought with it a jolt of fresh doubt.

“I probably can’t say the words I said to myself when I first heard about it,” said Marina González, head of talent management at the Atlanta company Payrix, which is hoping for an early-2022 return to the office, although they have not set a date for it. “Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, something else comes along.”

The uncertainty of this period has prompted some companies to abandon more than just their RTO dates.

Charity: water, a nonprofit, had previously occupied 25,000 square feet in Tribeca and reopened a downsized office last spring. CEO Scott Harrison, who moved from New York City to Nashville, Tennessee, during the pandemic, sensed that his employees wanted him to set clear expectations about when they would have to report back.

“We saw a lot of companies playing it month by month and we wanted to give our team members a much greater line of sight,” he said.

But that line of sight doesn’t include an RTO date. Workers weren’t making use of the office space, Harrison found. So instead of locking down a timeline for the company’s return, he picked a date of a different kind: By March, Charity: water will end its lease.

[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]