This summer, we saw non-essential businesses gradually reopen their doors as COVID-19 restrictions began to ease in regions around the world, but a global scan shows that no two return-to-office plans are exactly the same.
Regional COVID-19 case counts, variants of concern, vaccination uptake and requirements, testing capabilities, and availability of PPE (personal protective equipment) are all at play when it comes to welcoming employees back to the office. Companies have also attempted to incorporate new technologies for tracing and tracking purposes to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
Employee preferences and office budgets are also significant factors to consider. Widespread mental health challenges and burnout caused by the pandemic has undoubtedly impacted some employers’ decisions on return-to-office strategies. Some companies have decided to commit to permanent remote work, while others have redesigned their physical offices to accommodate an increasingly hybrid employee base, while adhering to COVID-19 distancing guidelines.
Exploring Canada and around the world, this scan provides a starting point for discussions and analysis of how companies are navigating the shift back to offices, what protocols they have in place, and how they’re responding to the current COVID situation.
Rapid COVID-19 tests for workplaces
The Canadian government, some provincial and territorial governments, and distribution partners—including pharmacies, chambers of commerce, and the Canadian Red Cross—are providing free rapid COVID-19 tests to organizations, to be used for regular workplace screening of close-contact employees.
Voluntary, flexible return to worksite program for federal workers
More than 200 federal workers volunteered to return to designated workplaces in the national capital region as a part of Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC)’s “pathfinder project”. Employees who want to participate must register and reserve their workstation each day in advance. The workspaces were designed according to activity-based workplace guidelines, including non-assigned spaces and collaborative spaces. Employees will be able to choose to work at one of these locations or work from home, depending on what is more convenient for them.
Flexible remote and in-person work options
- Deloitte Canada announced a hybrid work model that allows employees to choose when they work at the office, at a designated client site, or from home.
- Sun Life Financial announced a similar model, giving their workers full flexibility on where they work from, and when.
Reimagining the office
- Telus is working on redesigning their offices, moving away from assigned spots and towards co-working spaces, collaborative spaces, wellness stations, and independent work stations.
In the United States…
Return-to-office plans postponed, vaccine mandated
- Major tech firms Google, Apple and Facebook, who each employ thousands of workers, have postponed plans to return to physical offices until at least October 2021 as cases of the Delta variant rise in 50 states.
- Both Google and Facebook will be requiring their employees to be vaccinated before returning to the campus.
Fully remote workplaces
- Twitter announced in May 2020 that all staff can work remotely permanently if they choose to. On July 12, 2021, they reopened their New York and San Francisco offices, but recently shut them down again in alignment with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.
- Business news publication Quartz is now a “fully distributed company” which means that all of its employees are allowed to work from anywhere they can legally employ people, and staff who live near its offices can choose when to go in.
Multi-step reopening strategy
- Customer relationship management software company Salesforce kicked off its three-part return-to-office plan in April. The first part consists of volunteer groups of 100 or fewer people working on designated floors in selected offices, with onsite COVID testing twice a week and COVID health officers to assist employees. The second phase will see offices reopen from 20% to 75% capacity, depending on the COVID data rating and local guidance, and the third stage will be a full office reopening with up to 100% capacity. Vaccinations will still be encouraged and testing will be available where possible.
Hybrid work/location models
- Traction on Demand, a Salesforce consulting partner and app development firm with employees from the U.S, Canada and India, is in talks to partner with bike shops, cafés, microbreweries and other small businesses to provide flexible work areas for their employees while supporting local businesses.
New office designs
- Over the next year or so, Google is rolling out new office designs in about 10 percent of its global work spaces. These new offices, designed in response to COVID-19, emphasize modular spaces called “team pods”, outdoor work areas and “hot desks” to accommodate their hybrid workforce.
Around the world…
- Infosys, an Indian IT company, turned to technology to manage a safe return-to office, including “AI-powered elevated body temperature screening,” social distancing and mask compliance through cameras, internal contact tracing apps, a “COVID chatbot” to answer employee questions about the pandemic, and hot-desking applications to help employees book a sanitized cubicle.
- Global banks in Hong Kong, including Morgan Stanley and Citi, set up on-site vaccination sites on specific days for their staff to encourage inoculation.
- Even after July 19, dubbed “Freedom Day” in England, when most of the country’s COVID-19 restrictions were loosened, big companies have been slow to fully return to office. For American investment management company Blackstone, employees in the London office must wear masks and social distance while in the office, though disclosing their vaccination status remains optional.
- In the London headquarters of consumer products conglomerate Unilever, employees are required to wear masks while walking around the building but not at their desks. Social distancing guidelines remain in place, capping how many people can be at work.
- Global investment bank Credit Suisse launched their “The Way We Work” model on July 5 that gives employees flexibility between remote and in-office work. Employees will be able to decide, along with their team and managers, what percentage of their time they want to spend outside of the office and which days they wish to spend working in the office. The company has said that “the aim of this global initiative is to improve work-life balance.”
- Brighte, a Sydney-based company that helps homeowners fund home improvement projects, saw employees returning to the office by June of last year, with desks spaced farther apart, lower maximum capacities for meeting rooms and hand sanitizer dispensers installed throughout the office. The company has been flexible with allowing its employees to work from home a few days a week, depending on individual and team needs. Brighte CEO and founder Katherine McConnell says she tries not to schedule company-wide meetings and social events on days like Friday, when more people tend to work from home. Additionally, all meeting invites include an option to join by Zoom, and if someone specifically wants to host an in-person meeting, they let everyone know in advance.
- Brazilian state-run oil firm Petroleo Brasileiro SA, known as Petrobras, staggered their return to office for its “white-collar workers” between July and August. The company said the return to office will alternate between in-person and remote days.
It’s clear that there are a variety of factors that companies must consider when planning for in-person work again, from employees’ personal needs, office layout and vaccination status to local case counts and hospitalization numbers. As countries around the world grapple with rising cases, companies must remain nimble and adaptable when planning for their return to office.