Return To The Office: The Timeline To Expect… And Prepare For

Return To Work

We’ve previously explored why an all-or-nothing work-from-home strategy isn’t realistic for the future of work. The reasons are many: employees are fatigued, boundaries around work hours are blurred, culture is suffering, and productivity has taken a hit.

Still, the reality is that COVID-19 will need to be managed well into 2022. As Gartner’s chief data officer writes, “companies will need an agile, decisive and data-driven strategy to navigate what could be an extended and volatile period while vaccines are distributed and administered.” That means how we interact with colleagues and the spaces where we work must be completely reimagined. 

The general consensus is that we will see gradual or flexible returns, with those who require office space for productivity or for service-based work the first workers back inside workplaces in earnest. 

So when can we expect to see workers beginning to return en masse to the office? Our projections are no earlier than Q4 2021:


Q4 2021- Open, Test, Comply, Iterate

This is the earliest that we predict people getting back to the office in any meaningful way, with offices aiming to reach 25 percent occupancy on any given day. As David Cairns indicated on LinkedIn, some are envisioning various permutations of how often people will use the office – ex. a percent of workers at 2-3 days per week, 1-2 days per week, and 0 days per week.  

However it breaks down, companies must demonstrate compliance with social distancing efforts, and have a streamlined process in place for setting schedules and automating how employees book spaces to work. Afterall, that percent of people working 2-3 days per week won’t be the same people every time. This will introduce massive variability in the needs and behaviors of those employees. 

Adherence to a safety plan means communicating requirements and managing occupancy levels. It means adjusting policies in step with each variable that is introduced along the way (different people, shifting organization needs, and an ever-changing landscape). 

This is the time when companies will need to validate their plans, introduce the technology and services needed, and refine how best to support productivity while people are in and out of the office. How companies handle this stage is critical, as it sets the table for a Dynamic Office

Learn more about the dynamic office

Expect 2022 to be the year of change 

We predict that 2021 will be the year of strategizing, implementing tools and testing. In 2022 the new workplace paradigm will emerge, the office evolving with it. We can all expect the office to be designated on an as-needed basis for specific employees and specific reasons (e.g. team collaboration, client meetings, production needs). 

Service-oriented offices will be technology enabled and driven by real-time data analytics that inform specific needs for individuals and teams. This will be the era of the Dynamic Office, when Space-as-a-Service supports employees in real-time and helps them be as productive as possible when needing office space.

It will be the beginning of the end of the office as we knew it. The new operational model for the workplace will be shaped and driven by occupancy and utilization data. Companies that embrace new opportunities to transform their office will establish the consistency and trust needed to welcome back employees to a safe, productive new normal in a few months’ time.


The path to get there

The benefits of this paradigm shift are clear: improve employee productivity, develop culture and relationships, cost-savings across real estate needs, access to talent regardless of location, and many things we have yet to realize. 

In order to get to these desired outcomes, 2021 will be the year of planning, technology and testing. Selecting the foundational tools necessary to meet compliance requirements, provide access to office resources, and the ability to evolve over time. 

Implementing people analytics, contact tracing and communication tools is critical now, and occupancy and density management are top priorities. Measuring the behaviors of employees as they return goes far beyond occupancy to include frequency, time-on-site and utilization - critical metrics to truly understanding employee needs. Companies must consider the physical attributes of their office space, their employee culture, and overall business objectives when designing a plan to build employee confidence, drive productivity and ensure continuity of operations.  

Key here is building the ability to measure and track a wide range of variables in order to understand utilization and assess real estate performance to validate safety strategies and inform change.