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Returning to work in the office in 2024? Here’s what to expect

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7 mins

2020 has been a year of drastic change. The onset of COVID-19 has changed the way we conduct our daily lives in ways that we’ll never forget.

Mandatory masks. Isolation from family, friends, colleagues, and classmates. Retirement accounts plummeting, then rising to new heights. The sudden transition to working and learning remotely. These are just some of the significant events of the past year.

The business world has also been profoundly affected by the pandemic. Many small businesses and restaurants have been shuttered. Millions of American workers have been forced to join the ranks of the unemployed. Millions more are working from home as commercial office buildings sit empty.

2021 appears to be headed in a better direction. New vaccines have been discovered and are being distributed, first to those on the front-line and then to the general population. Students are looking forward to reuniting with their classmates at school. People that were forced to work remotely are eagerly anticipating leaving their homes each day and going back to work in their offices.

If you’re returning to the office in 2021, you’ll probably find it’s not “business as usual.” The new landscape of work may take some getting used to. With this in mind, let’s take a look at what you can expect to experience as people begin to return to the office in 2021.

Remote work won’t disappear

While some people have enjoyed the absence of their daily commute to work in an office setting, the feeling is not universal. Many others are ready to return to the workplace and recapture the feeling of community that a traditional office environment offers. They’re looking forward to face-to-face communication with co-workers and customers.

But that doesn't mean working remotely and meeting via Zoom calls will soon be relics of the past. Small and large businesses alike have discovered that remote work has its advantages, among them being:

  • Reduced business expenses, such as costs for office space, equipment, and travel reimbursement.
  • Increased access to quality job applicants. Remote work eliminates borders and allows for the hiring of the highest-quality candidates, regardless of location.
  • Increased productivity. With fewer distractions from being at the office with co-workers, employees have more time to stay on-task.
  • Improved employee satisfaction and retention. It’s not surprising that many employees have enjoyed working from home. Staying with their current employer is likely a by-product of this.
  • Reduced carbon footprint. With nearly half of all U.S. jobs being able to be performed at home, automobile emissions are substantially reduced.

Big tech companies, which often serve as America’s chief trendsetters, have already taken a powerful stance in favor of remote work — one that can be expected to trickle down to other industries as well.

Google will allow employees to work from home at least through the end of June 2021 “for roles that don’t need to be in the office,” according to CEO Sundar Pichai. Facebook is following suit by expanding work from home privileges through the end of the second quarter of 2021. Microsoft has decided to let some employees work from home permanently.

This is no coincidence. Rather, the benefits of remote work for employees are just that clear:

  • Improved project momentum
  • Cost savings on dining out and clothing
  • Uninterrupted productivity
  • More time with family
  • Cost and time savings by not commuting

With so much upside to remote work, it’s easy to see why people that are needed to return to the office are going to see fewer of their co-workers at their desks when they arrive. Not all employees that will be working remotely will be doing it full-time. Some workers will be “hybrid workers,” meaning they’ll spend some hours each week working from home, and some at their employer’s offices.

[ Related read: 7 effective tips for working from home as a first-timer ]

Employee benefits will evolve

While some companies are scaling back employee benefits due to the pandemic, others are expanding their offerings. Employers with the financial resources to do so are putting their human resources departments to work finding ways to provide improved benefits to their employees in 2021.

Improved mental health services

While employee benefit programs have historically contained provisions that pay for outpatient counseling and inpatient treatment, more companies will be providing an increased amount of online mental health support resources. These include apps, videos, and additional on-demand information. Some companies are implementing manager training to assist supervisory staff in recognizing mental and behavioral health issues and direct employees to the appropriate healthcare providers.

“Tele-mental health” is an area of care that appears to be on a pace to reach more employees than other specialties. Virtual delivery helps to address provider shortages, shorten wait times, and reduce the stigma associated with seeking and receiving mental health care.

More flexible time-off

With employees not having places to go for some well-deserved rest and relaxation, many employers are altering their personal time off (PTO) policies. They’re allowing employees to carry over some of their unused PTO into the next calendar year. Other employers are also implementing PTO sharing programs, which lets employees donate vacation time to a charity or a specific colleague.

Virtual wellness and team-building events

Many employers are taking their wellness programs online by offering employees virtual yoga classes, kickboxing, martial arts, and various other types of fitness classes.

To foster team unity, some employers have hosted virtual “lunch and learn” sessions, virtual happy hours, and team movie watching. Others have introduced online gaming sessions, including trivia contests, Zoom bingo, and competition among employees for the best virtual backgrounds.

[ Related read: The 20 best employee benefits and works perks in 2021 ]

A continued impact on business travel

While business travel has improved as 2020 has progressed, many companies have found that it’s not essential. For many businesses, sales haven’t suffered by not being able to meet with clients and prospects personally. Meeting virtually has proven to be as effective at building and maintaining relationships as being there has, and at a fraction of the cost.

Likewise, attendance at conventions, trade shows, and conferences is likely to be reduced as well. Companies have found that the savings on airfare, hotels, attendance fees, trade show booths, and entertainment just isn’t worth it compared with the financial returns.

Many conferences are now being held remotely, and employees are getting as much information and networking effectively as they did when physically attending a conference.

Do we really need to “return to normal?”

In the business world, new ways to increase profitability are always welcomed with open arms. For employees, working where they want to and receiving better benefits makes for a more content workforce. While the changes that have occurred in 2020 were unexpected, they have in many ways been an eye-opener to American businesses and employees.

2021 will look different to employees as they return to the office, and that’s to be expected as the world has changed. But, employees have a lot to look forward to as their value is recognized and appreciated by their employers.

Jack Wolstenholm is the head of content at Breeze.

The information and content provided herein is for educational purposes only, and should not be considered legal, tax, investment, or financial advice, recommendation, or endorsement. Breeze does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, reliability or usefulness of any testimonials, opinions, advice, product or service offers, or other information provided here by third parties. Individuals are encouraged to seek advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

— Published December 24, 2020
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