Why Are Employers Still Acting Like Offices Will Reopen 'Soon'?

Employees report that their offices are keeping them in remote-work limbo, constantly pushing back re-opening dates but not committing to a long-term remote setup, either.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, United States
October 1, 2020, 6:25pm
man sitting at a desk with a computer
Surface via Unsplash

After Google and then Facebook announced that workers wouldn’t be required to come back to the office until July 2021 at the earliest, Arijit figured it was only a matter of time until his San Francisco-based company did the same. Within a few weeks, he was proven right; his investing office, initially scheduled to reopen in November 2020, pushed the date back yet again, all the way to summer 2021.

“Tech runs SF; once big tech decided, I think the whole city followed,” Arijit, 25, who asked to omit his last name in an effort not to expose his employer, told VICE.

Google was the first major company to push the reopening timeline into next summer, a decision the Wall Street Journal characterized as applying pressure on other tech companies that planned to bring employees back in January. It may turn out to be the only remotely feasible timeline, as case numbers in previously contained major cities like New York City creep back up amid schools reopening.

Some employers, like Arijit’s, are following Google and Facebook’s lead, giving hundreds of thousands of workers reasonable expectations and room to plan their lives accordingly. Others remain committed to the model of inching their reopening dates back month by month, or even week by week, frustrating workers who, seven months into the pandemic, are exhausted by being kept on permanent notice amid constantly changing conditions, and worry for their health and safety.

Diana, 22, who asked to omit her last name to protect her employer, told VICE her company in St. Louis will likely never require all workers to come in full-time again.

“If [the office] does reopen, I would go in maybe two or three times a week, or only as needed,” Diana said. “I miss the structure and socialization of the office. I'm an extrovert who enjoys immediate feedback and it's nice to get that on work projects from my colleagues. But I’ve also found that I get a lot of work done in three or four hours that would typically take me six to eight, because I would socialize in the office, or get distracted so often. Also, I want to avoid getting COVID.”

Diana was actually thinking of leaving her company earlier this year. After transitioning to remote work in March, and with the clarity that she won’t be required to come back in, she feels less inclined to seek out a new job. “My future feels way more open, when it comes to location,” she said, “It gives me more peace knowing I can do my job from anywhere. I know that I could move anywhere and my boss wouldn't mind, as long as I still got my work done. As a young person, that's a huge perk to me and actually makes me want to stay in my current role longer, when earlier in the year I was thinking of changing jobs.”

Like Diana, a majority of people who’ve spent most of 2020 working from home are happier this way. According to a survey of 1,123 remote workers by the New York Times and Morning Consult, 86 percent said they were happy with their “current arrangements—even when that sometimes meant working from their bedrooms or closets.” At this point in the pandemic, with a vaccine still months to years away and case numbers continuously fluctuating, an employer’s decision to keep workers home is a minimal nod of respect for their health and safety.

Some employers have gone a step beyond, like Facebook, which offered workers $1,000 for “home office needs” upon pushing the reopening date back to July 2021. Others have even taken this as an opportunity to cut the hefty costs of leases, closing down offices in high-rent cities and using the pandemic to shift expectations around how and where people work.

Yet some companies remain committed to the idea of having everyone back in, as soon as possible, even inventing their own timelines for what constitutes a safe and reasonable reopening. Bloomberg reported in early September that Wall Street employers were clamoring for workers to come back after the Labor Day weekend, as if the COVID-19 pandemic has been a prolonged summer vacation, and not a global tragedy.

Workers who’ve been brought back in, or are fighting with managers to continue working from home, told VICE they feel stuck; they feel disrespected by their employer, but during a time of record unemployment, like they have no choice but to comply.

Are you experiencing pressure to return to the office, or have thoughts you’d like to share about work during the pandemic? We'd love to hear from you. Contact the reporter at hannah.smothers@vice.com, or securely via Signal at +1 (908) 485-7021.

Aaron, 28, who asked to omit his last name to avoid retaliation from his employer, described his company as “very old school” in its belief that everyone should be in the office. “It’s a control issue for them,” he said.

Aaron said working from home, while totally manageable in his position, has been, overall, a struggle. “When I say struggle, I mean constantly needing to convince company management of the importance of staying WFH,” he said. “Starting in June, they began requiring us to come into the office twice a week to help out answering phones. This was super unnecessary, as it only decreased our productivity and we are in no way required to be in the office to answer our internet-based phones.”

About 100 people work in Aaron’s office in Des Moines, Iowa, and none of their jobs necessitate actually being in the office. Yet company management remains insistent on getting everyone back along some still undetermined timeline.

“There is literally no plan,” Aaron said. “My coworkers and I ask, but have yet to be given an answer. We have only guessed it will be next year. We get random emails saying we will be staying remote ‘for now,’ but nothing more. One of our VPs (a big Trump supporter and donor) has been insistent that we open the office up immediately as we cannot be ‘afraid of this China Virus.’ They were recently considering having us come back October 1, but decided against that, as far as I know.”

Bringing employees back in, mid-pandemic, introduces a host of HR issues. Aside from exposing workers (and, by extension, their families and everyone they interact with) to coronavirus, putting coworkers back in the same room together invites behavior policing that would be otherwise completely inappropriate.

When Belinda Z., 18, who asked to omit her full last name out of privacy concerns, was brought back into her office in San Diego, California, in late June, she said all employees were asked to fill out a form upon entering. “Every morning we would check our temperature, and sign a form to send to our direct managers,” she said. The form included a list of symptoms with yes or no checkboxes next to each one, a temperature check verification, and required a signature and date at the bottom. The form also mentioned protocols taken by the company, and details on when workers can return to work, if and when they get sick.

While it’s unclear if Belinda’s form constituted as much, the use of COVID waivers is a legally murky loophole that sororities, sports teams, and salons have relied on as they unadvisedly bring people back to normal. Belinda was ultimately sent back home after less than three weeks, due to a statewide order in California. She’s relieved to be working from home again, and says being back in the office was isolating and strange. “There were times I wouldn’t see anyone for a whole day,” she said. “I get it, we’re supposed to be far away from people—but why wouldn’t we continue isolating from the safety of our homes?”

Aaron continues to push back on his employer’s insistence on returning to work. He recently made a special trip into the office, just to grab something, and while there, ended up interacting with another employee who’d recently tested positive for COVID-19.

“Everyone else at the company sees this as ‘no big deal,’ even though several others were exposed as well,” he said. “My wife and I both had to get tested. Thankfully we were both negative, but it was a major disruption to our lives, and scary, because my wife has underlying health issues. I expressed to my boss that I don’t feel comfortable coming into the office and he said everyone will be required to come back full-time. It feels very spiteful to me, and says to me that my employer doesn’t care about the safety of me or my family. I’m very frustrated with my current work situation.”

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