Return-to-Office Plans Are Set in Motion, but Virus Uncertainty Remains

Many employers are not making a decision until many workers are vaccinated. And some are making plans for “hybrid” work arrangements.

Buildings in Manhattan, where the amount of sublet office space available to rent surged nearly 50 percent last year.Credit…George Etheredge for The New York Times

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By Julie Creswell, Gillian Friedman and Peter Eavis

A year and a pandemic ago, over 100,000 people filled the central business district in Charlotte, N.C., pouring out of offices, including several recently built skyscrapers, and into restaurants, bars and sports venues. Then as the coronavirus sent employees to their homes, much of the city center quickly went quiet and dark.

The return of those employees to their offices has been halting and difficult. Last fall, Fifth Third Bank began bringing back workers, but soon reversed course. LendingTree, which is moving from the suburbs to the city, is waiting for the end of the school year. Wells Fargo has delayed its return to the office several times, telling its employees recently that they will continue to work remotely through at least May 1. And Duke Energy will bring some employees back in June, and most of the 6,000 people at its headquarters in September, when children should be able to go back to schools.

Corporate executives around the country are wrestling with how to reopen offices as the pandemic starts to loosen its grip. Businesses — and many employees — are eager to return to some kind of normal work life, going back to the office, grabbing lunch at their favorite restaurant or stopping for drinks after work. But the world has changed, and many managers and workers alike acknowledge that there are advantages to remote work.

While coronavirus cases are declining and vaccinations are rising, many companies have not committed to a time and strategy for bringing employees back. The most important variable, many executives said, is how long it will take for most employees to be vaccinated.

Another major consideration revolves around the children of workers. Companies say they can’t make firm decisions until they know when local schools will reopen for in-person learning.

Then there is a larger question: Does it make sense to go back to the way things were before the pandemic given that people have become accustomed to the rhythms of remote work?

“Everyone has different comfort levels with coming back,” said Chuck McShane, a senior vice president at the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, an organization that has helped lure businesses to the area. “For some companies, it depends on the type of work you’re doing and whether you can remain at home. But a concern about continued remote work is, how do entry-level workers get socialized into the office culture?”

About a quarter of employees across the country are going into offices these days, according to Kastle Systems, an office security firm that gets data from 3,600 buildings in the United States.

Many companies, paying to rent empty office space, are eager for that number to rise. Their executives believe having employees working side by side improves collaboration, supports the development of younger employees and nurtures the heart and soul of any company — its culture.

That’s why some managers like Mark Rose, chief executive of Avison Young, a commercial property consulting and property management firm based in Chicago with offices around the world, is asking employees to return to the office in April.

“You’re not going to be fired or written up if you don’t come back, but it is the expectation that, subject to local laws, and subject to your individual issues, that you start to make your way back,” Mr. Rose said about his 5,000 employees. “It absolutely is going to be an expectation.”

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