Shortly after Pfizer and Moderna reported extremely high efficacy rates of their coronavirus vaccines, stocks surged on the optimism that we will all soon be able to return to normal, and by extension, the office. As the first batch of vaccines are being deployed and administered around the world and in the US this week, we’ve begun to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
When we look back on the last eight months, one learning stands out: people crave in-person interaction. We saw this as people followed distancing protocols with gusto this spring, but by the autumn, pandemic-fatigued, they flocked to unsafe gatherings like pubs, parties, family gatherings and sporting events, leading to the uptick in COVID-19 cases that we see today.
As we look towards a more protected population as a result of the vaccine, the question now is: how can we prioritise the human need for connection with solutions that keep us moving forward in our fight against COVID-19?
I believe the solution lies in giving workers the flexibility to safely head back to an office.
We’ve seen that returning to the office can be done safely. A study by the journal Nature found that being in a small number of places, like ‘restaurants, gyms, cafes and hotels’, accounts for 80 per cent of all infections. Not included in that report? Office spaces.
More pressingly, we know that people want to return to work: only 12 per cent of people want to continue to work from home full-time after the pandemic, and most employees want to work from an office three or more days a week.
Prior to second-wave lockdowns, WeWork conducted a blind global survey in October of professional workers who had returned to an office space after an extended period working from home due to the pandemic. The study showed a 40 per cent improvement in morale for those who’d returned to the office anywhere from one to five days a week.
By giving employees the flexibility to return to the office, even if just for a day or two a week, business leaders may also help reduce the negative effects that full-time remote work has had on countless people. Most concerningly, employees’ mental health has suffered. A recent Oracle and Workplace Intelligence global survey of more than 12,000 employees, managers, HR leaders and C-suite executives found that 78 per cent said the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health.
As indoor dining closes, in-office socialising in a controlled environment may also provide an added benefit of the interaction we crave while also limiting unsafe interactions elsewhere.
Dr Peter Cappelli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, aptly noted, ‘Coffee breaks – and the informal connections we make there – matter, as does our general office social life, which helps to keep us engaged. It is hard to keep that going via occasional video chats.’
With it likely to be several more months before we have a widely vaccinated workforce, now is the time to plan ahead. While no two spaces will look the same, all business leaders must focus on creating offices that prioritise safety, facilitate distancing and allow for flexible work arrangements.
Think ahead, think flexibly and think safely. With a workforce back in the office, we may once again revive the sense of normality that just a few months ago felt far, far away.
Sandeep Mathrani is the CEO of WeWork.