Your Office Called. They Want You Back At Work.
If you’ve been thrust into working from home for the last year-plus, your routine of Zoom calls, walking the dog at lunch and avoiding seeing your boss in person are likely to be coming to an end.
With more people being vaccinated and life returning to a semblance of normal, many employers around Charlotte are quietly laying the groundwork to try to make their workplaces more like normal, too.
It’s a tricky time for companies, as they work to assess changing government rules, shifting health guidance and drastically different employee expectations while trying to run their businesses efficiently.
Some local companies have set back-to-the-office dates for this summer, and even some of Charlotte’s largest employers have started making noises about bringing workers back. Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan said last month that the bank is a “work-from-office company because the productivity and the culture and mentoring that can take place is just better,” and that the bank will be “generally moving toward being back to normal” after Labor Day.
The Ledger talked with local employment lawyers, human resources advisers and others about some of the key issues related to returning to the office in-person — and what that might look like when it happens.
Timeline: Smaller Companies Back Earlier
Although Charlotte’s big banks seem to be eyeing a return around Labor Day, many small and mid-sized companies are headed back to the office sooner, setting deadlines of bringing everyone back by June 1 or July 1. That’s because with fewer workers, it’s easier to make it happen logistically. And unlike a major bank, a 15-person insurance office doesn’t have to worry about making headlines when it happens.
“If you see a big financial institution come back in September, we’ll see the small and medium-sized companies start to beat that,” says Brett Gray, managing principal in the Charlotte office of Cushman & Wakefield, a real estate services firm. “They’re starting to come back in.”
Of course, some companies already have allowed workers to return to the office if they want to. Workers’ preferences vary: Some enjoy working from home, while others can’t wait to get out of the house. Expect more encouragement, if not requirements, to head back to work. Many employers believe that “this idea of bringing people back whenever they feel like it defeats the purpose of creativity of working with your team,” Gray says.
Schedule: Probably Not Full-Time All At Once
Most employers probably won’t demand that their entire workforces show up in the office full-time on Day 1. With social distancing guidelines still in place, that could be tricky. Most seem to be adopting a hybrid approach, at least initially, though that requires a lot of planning and discussions with individual employees.
What If You Don’t Want To Go Back?
One of the biggest questions employers are asking Kenny Colbert, co-CEO of Catapult (formerly The Employers Association), is what to do about workers who have grown too comfortable staying home.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘I just don’t want to come back at all because I have gotten used to this work-at-home lifestyle, wearing my pajamas all day long and not fighting traffic and not spending a lot of money,’” he says.
It’s a dicey question for employers, Colbert says, because while they could probably legally force workers to return on the threat of being fired, the tight job market is making a lot of companies back off from pushing the issue. “Good people can find jobs somewhere else,” he says. “If you’re not meeting the needs of your workers, you’re at risk of losing some good people right now.”
Vaccinations: Probably Not Required
Employment lawyers say the main questions they get from companies continue to be whether they can require employees to be vaccinated. The answer is usually “yes” — but businesses need to make sure they allow exceptions on religious and health grounds, which could be a legal minefield. As a result, many are not requiring vaccinations.
“Everybody is scared to death of asking anything that they think has anything to do with a health-related issue,” says Grainger Pierce, an employment lawyer with Van Hoy, Reutlinger, Adams & Pierce. Bosses can ask if workers have been vaccinated, but they shouldn’t ask for additional information on why not unless they are making vaccinations mandatory. Some companies are offering incentives to workers who are vaccinated, which is fine, Pierce says.
Masks: You’ll Probably Have To Wear Them
North Carolina’s mask mandate remains in effect, and Gov. Roy Cooper has said it will continue until at least two-thirds of N.C. adults have received at least one vaccination. Right now, the figure is at about 50%, and at the current pace, it could take a while.
Under the current executive order, masks are required in office settings in which there are people from different households.
Meredith Jeffries, an employment lawyer with Alexander Ricks, says that she has received questions from employers asking if masks are required even if 100% of the company’s workforce is vaccinated. The answer is yes. “The governor’s orders do not make any exceptions for being vaccinated,” she says.
Office Configuration: No Major Changes
Although some companies have thought about shaking up their office layouts, most are taking a wait-and-see approach to big changes. “They’re saying, ‘We don’t want to go blow up the office unless we have to,” Gray says. Some companies with expiring leases or new construction already underway might have more unassigned desks, flexible layouts and work pods, but most firms are in long-term leases and aren’t making changes to existing office furniture or set-ups.
And they’re still continuing to follow recommendations for stepped-up cleaning, he says.
Office Attire: 'Slightly More Comfortable And Casual'
Sorry, athleisure lovers. It’s time to trade the yoga pants and workout shorts of COVID-19 for real work clothes.
Jon Simon, president of Paul Simon Co., which has men’s and women’s clothing shops in the Village at SouthPark, said he expects both men and women will want to dress well when they head back to the office for two reasons: They’ll be jockeying for position with both their bosses and clients, and they’re tired of casual COVID-19 attire.
Still, he’s seeing a nod toward slightly more comfortable and casual work clothes.
What does that look like? Simon said to expect to see more pullover knit shirts with sports jackets, casual five-pocket pants instead of dress pants and dress shoes with rubber soles. He said 90% of the men’s pants he’s selling now are five-pocket pants, which made up 60% of his pants business pre-COVID-19.
“Most business leaders will set office dress expectations geared toward getting the most productivity out of their workers and having a professional-looking staff,” Simon told The Ledger.
Simon said he’s been hearing the same refrain from customers for the last three months: They’re tired of Zoom, tired of mixing their work and home lives and tired of not dressing well for other people.
“They are excited to put on nice clothes again,” he said.
This story first appeared in the Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter. It is reprinted with permission.