When the coronavirus pandemic closed offices in the United States in March, many companies told their employees that it would be just a short break from headquarters.
The workers, they said, would be back in their cabins within a few weeks. Weeks turned into September. Then September became January. And now that the virus is still on the rise in some parts of the country, more and more employers are postponing the return dates again, to summer 2021 at the earliest.
Google was one of the first companies to announce that July 2021 would be the date to return to office. Uber, Slack and Airbnb soon jumped on the train. Last week, Microsoft, Target, Ford Motor and the New York Times said they too had postponed the return of personal work until next summer, acknowledging the inevitable: the pandemic will not go away anytime soon.
"Let's just bite the bullet," said Joan Burke, DocuSign's chief people officer in San Francisco. In August, her company, which manages electronic document signatures, decided to allow its 5,200 employees to work from home until June 2021.
"We're still in a place where this is evolving," she said. "None of us have all the answers."
Many more companies are expected to postpone their return dates to ensure worker safety. According to a study by Wakefield Research, commissioned by Envoy, a workplace technology company, 73 percent of U.S. workers feared their workplace could pose a risk to their personal health and safety.
More and more companies are also saying that they will introduce permanent work-from-home guidelines so that employees never have to come back to the office.
In May, Facebook was one of the first companies to announce that many employees would be able to work remotely even after the pandemic. Twitter, Coinbase and Shopify have also announced they will do the same. On Friday, Microsoft announced that it would be part of that shift as well.
The extended deadlines and changing policies are creating an ongoing balancing act for companies as the coronavirus is destroying labor standards and turning assumptions about where employees need to be for maximum productivity. Employers are also under pressure to be as open as possible about their intentions so that workers can plan their lives ahead.
The postponement of return flight dates is "a psychological blow to those who were expecting a transition period," said Tsedal Neeley, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies remote work. "The reality is," There will be no vaccine, as I expected very quickly. This will be my life and I should better learn how to do this. "
Dr. Neeley likened the situation to waiting at an airport terminal for a flight that is constantly delayed. With the new data announced, she said, people can finally begin to shift from a temporary “grin and endure” approach to a permanent one.
Successful companies "have begun to think about long-term strategies rather than" let's just survive our crisis, "" she said.
Much of American businesses are now following the lead of Silicon Valley tech companies like Google and Facebook. They were among those who made it possible for employees to work from home even before the March pandemic fully hit. Since then, Facebook has set the tone for planning permanent remote work, while Google set the target date for returning to the office in July 2021.
"I hope this provides the flexibility you need to balance work with caring for yourself and your loved ones over the next 12 months," Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in an email to Google the employees on the date in July 2021.
Other employers soon emulated the tech giants, citing worker flexibility as a key factor in moving their return dates to next summer.
Ms. Burke, the DocuSign executive, said the announcement of the return date for employees in June 2021 caused a "collective sigh of relief within the company" as it ended the gradual shifts and uncertainty about when they would be expected to return .
Remote work has been productive, she said, and people would like not to have to commute. But a mix of personal and remote is probably the most popular option for employees as life returns to normal, she said, because they also miss the social interaction of an office space.
Zoom "isn't the same thing and it's exhausting," said Ms. Burke. "I zoomed out at 7am last night."
Other companies that have postponed their return to the office until next summer are often faced with a more complicated decision because, unlike internet companies, their workforce is not all employees.
Ford said last week that its decision to end personal office work by June 2021 would apply to its approximately 32,000 employees in North America who are already working remotely. The company, which has around 188,000 employees, said the policy does not apply to factory workers.
When Target announced in a letter to employees last week its decision to keep some employees working from home until June 2021, it said it would only apply to employees at the Minneapolis headquarters. The company said a small number of employees who rely on the headquarters facilities would continue to work on-site. In-store workers work in retail stores as usual.
Some companies that have tried to get employees back into the office have been grappling with security concerns. Last month, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase sent some employees home after employees who returned to the office tested positive for the virus.
Tech companies have also been at the forefront of permanent work-from-home guidelines, as digital work is often easier for people to do via laptops and conference calls than on-site.
Slack told employees – many of them engineers – in early August that the offices would be closed until June 2021 and that permanent work from home was being considered. That decision was partly down to how productive the remote workers were, Robby Kwok said. the chief of staff of Slack's managing director.
"I think the flexibility that employers give workers by not having to go to the office five days a week will be extremely positive for productivity and engagement," said Kwok.
Seventy-two percent of employees in a survey commissioned by Slack said they would prefer their companies to allow a mix of home and office work even after the pandemic has subsided. Mr Kwok said he expected a similar percentage among Slack employees.
However, some tech companies have reservations about long-term remote working and what could be lost in the process. Rapid7, a cybersecurity company based in Boston, has announced to its 1,600+ employees that they will continue to work from home through early 2021. However, the company says it does its best job through personal collaboration, and the pandemic hasn't changed that.
"We know we shouldn't be 100 percent away," said Christina Luconi, the company's chief people officer. "We will all go back to the office," she said when it is safe.
A push to company-wide remote working can be especially difficult for companies with a predominantly young workforce, said Andy Eichfeld, HR and administrative director of the credit card company Discover, who told employees on September 29 that they would not need them to return to the office before June 2021.
"A younger person needs an education in the first 10 or 15 years of their career," said Eichfeld. “And we know how to deliver that personally. I'm not sure if the training is done remotely. "
For some workers, next summer's return flight date and the idea of permanent work from home have been mixed blessings.
When Colin Fahrion, a digital communications specialist at the University of California at San Francisco, found out in June that he wouldn't have to return to the office until July 2021, he moved 15 miles further from San Francisco, from Richmond to Vallejo, about 30 Miles out of town, and bought a house.
Mr Fahrion, 47, now has his own office and back yard for his dog to play in and he has spoken to his manager about working remotely permanently. Still, he feels that Zoom meetings have no collaborative energy.
"I miss my staff," he said.