The Pandemic Isn’t Going Away — Do I Still Reopen the Office?

Bryan Zaslow

Nov 2, 2021


One of the most frustrating parts about flying is when your plane has to circle the airport until you get permission to land. The worst part isn’t the delay — hey, it happens sometimes — but that you never know how long you’ll be stuck in a holding pattern. You get encouraging reports from the pilot every now and then about how many planes are ahead of you, but mostly you just have to wait it out.

Right now, the business world is stuck in a similar holding pattern. We’ve been ready to fully reopen our offices for months now, but haven’t gotten the all-clear announcement from health officials or the federal government. Everyone else around us seems hesitant and stuck too. Experts are calling this the “Great Wait.”

Official restrictions around Covid-19 have already been lifted in many places, so business owners have mostly been left on their own to decide. The overall trends seem to be moving in the right direction, with the number of infections around the country dropping. But the possibility of other variants has made many people hesitant. As of last month, 66% of organizations announced that they were delaying reopening their offices due to the possibility of variants.

Anyone trying to follow the lead of the country’s biggest companies might be experiencing whiplash. At the end of September, Google became the latest of the corporate giants to once again put off returning to the office until early next year. Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft have made similar announcements.

The current situation is a crisis for employers who are — to build on my earlier metaphor — flying by the seat of their pants. They are losing precious dollars every month that their offices are completely or partially empty. Constantly trying to figure out when to bring everyone back is giving them what one expert called “analysis paralysis.”

It’s not a great situation for workers, either. Studies conducted early in the pandemic showed that employees did not want to return to the office anytime soon. That has changed gradually over the past 18 months. According to the latest results of a weekly Morning Consult survey, 60% of remote workers would now feel comfortable returning to the office. Slightly more would like to return to the office as soon as they feel it is safe.

Then why are there 4.3 million people who still haven’t returned to the country’s workforce? Turns out that many of them are parents who are encountering some “analysis paralysis” of their own. They are concerned about their own health, sure, but they are also concerned about things like childcare. With outbreaks still causing temporary closures of schools and daycare centers, they want to make sure someone can take care of the kids.  

Anyone who knows me or has read this column knows that I feel strongly about the need for offices to reopen, even partially. It was several months ago that I called a mandatory all-hands meeting here at JBC and discussed how and when we’d be returning to the office. We left it up to employees whether they’d return to the office, continue working from home, or choose some combination of the two. (In case you’re curious, I decided that the latter option was best for me. I have been enjoying a Wednesday in the office every week with 60 to 80 of my New York-based colleagues.  The energy of that camaraderie has been amazing).

I’d love to have everyone in the office a bit more than once a week. We’re a great team, and we work best when we all can come together. It’s easier to have discussions when we’re all in the same room. We come up with better solutions to problems when we can talk them over face to face. Onboarding new employees is tough when they never meet their team members in person. But for the time being, we are fortunate to have ways for everyone to get together virtually.

I understand that what works for JBC is not necessarily the best option for all companies. But this is what I tell people who ask me whether or not they should reopen their office: unlock the doors and encourage everyone who feels comfortable enough to come back to their desks. We did, and now more than 70% of our team comes in once a week to work together and build richer in-person relationships. Make it clear that you’ll have their back if circumstances force them to work from home now and then. And give your full support to those who aren’t ready to return yet. Many of them will be soon.

Right now we’re all stuck on the metaphorical runway waiting to arrive at “normal,” but it’s not going to last forever. We as leaders are the ones who have to make the disembarkment as smooth as possible and work to get our teams back together, even if just for a day a week.