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Returning to the Office Isn’t Just a Business Decision. It’s an Emotional One, Too.

Why leaders must consider more than just productivity before bringing employees back to the office.

Kelly Bertog
Published in
5 min readJun 15, 2020

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A last-minute, all-team Zoom could only mean one thing: our CEO had big news.

After abandoning our small Chicago office at the start of the COVID-19 crisis, our company had been working 100% remote for nearly three straight months. During this time, we had yet to have an impromptu all-hands meeting, and imaginations were running wild as everyone hopped on to the sound of Zoom’s familiar ding.

“After speaking with building management, I’ve learned that we’ll be cleared to return to the office as soon as June 15.”

Though we were all sitting miles apart, you feel the air leave the virtual room. Sure, there had been plenty of jokes like “see you in 2021” and talk of our “new normal” — but this was the first serious piece of news related to working in the office since we went remote back in March.

While everyone is ready for some normalcy, the news came as a shock. And what came next was even more surprising.

People got emotional. Really emotional. You could hear the tightness in their chest and elevated heart rate as they shared concerns, voices laced with the same emotions you’d find in a heartbroken teenager or fired employee: surprise, confusion, concern, and of course, anger.

In our CEO’s defense, he hadn’t even confirmed we were returning on June 15 — just that it was possible. He had done what he has always done so well, favoring honesty and transparency with the team, openly sharing information so that we could make an educated business decision.

But returning to the office is not a normal business decision. It’s an emotional one, too.

If the COVID-19 crisis took place 10 years ago, there would be no debate. Business had to be done in the office, and employees would need to balance the reward of a paycheck with the risk of venturing out as an unseen virus still walked the streets.

But in 2020, that’s all changed. Technology has not only made remote work possible — for many, it’s made it fun and productive, too. Which is why it’s not surprising that even before the global pandemic hit, 48% of U.S. workers reported working remotely at least once-per-week.

We’ve proven remote work can work. So, is returning to the office worth the hassle and the risk?

For many, the answer is no. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has already announced that most employees will be able to work from home indefinitely. And he’s not alone. Facebook, Shopify, Coinbase, and hundreds of other companies have already adopted either a long-term or permanent remote policy.

But why would these companies abandon their multimillion-dollar corporate campuses? Simple — returning prematurely would have an emotional toll on their teams that far outweighs the benefits of being under the same roof.

Leaders must consider this emotional cost before making the decision to bring employees back to the office. And to better understand if and when your business should return, start by asking yourself these 5 key questions:

1. Do you understand the risk that extends beyond your employees?

For many employees, the risk of return may have nothing to do with their own health. Perhaps they have a newborn at home. Maybe they care for an elderly relative. Or live with someone who is immunocompromised.

Don’t assume that if your employees seem healthy, returning doesn’t still pose a risk.

2. Is there a clear business need to be in the office?

Do your employees require special equipment, run in-person gatherings, or need to perform specific manual tasks in the office?

If the answer is no, and you cannot articulate why you want them back (other than personal preference), it’ll be incredibly difficult to convince them to brave public transit and an office full of people anytime soon.

3. Can you provide your employees with a safe space to work?

For many leaders, the dream of getting back to “normal” includes the thought of walking through an office full of smiling faces. But have you considered the cost and logistics of providing a mask for all those smiles? Are you prepared with hand sanitizing stations, deep cleaning crews, rotating break room schedules, and plexiglass partitions?

Before even considering bringing people back to the office, it’s your responsibility to make it a safe place to work.

4. Have you evaluated the cost-savings of adopting a permanent remote policy?

After labor costs, rent and the associated overhead of maintaining an office is one of the largest ongoing expenses a business can have. Have you considered how adopting an ongoing remote work policy could grow your bottom line?

The massive capital saved from reducing or eliminating your office space could be reinvested into the next stage of growth for your business.

5. Have you considered other options, such as flexible hours, days, or a “remote-first” policy?

If business needs dictate returning to the office, or you’re just not ready to go 100% remote, consider a hybrid model.

Perhaps your institute a “remote-first” policy, where employees are free to work from home on any day they are not needed for an in-person meeting or function. Or maybe adopt a rotating remote work schedule, with flexible days that allow employees to come in with less frequency, and when they do, be surrounded by fewer people than normal.

As the nation emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, returning to any sort of normal is going to be messy and fraught with emotions. And these emotions do not get checked at the door when your employees show up for work. As a leader, you must understand the broad range of implications your decision to return has on the health and happiness of your team.

Now more than ever, it’s time to lead with empathy. Only then will we be able to forge a path forward.

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Kelly Bertog
The Startup

Entrepreneur obsessed with marketing, startups, and failure. Love non-alcoholic drinks and building YOURS to support non drinkers everywhere. www.SipYours.com