Employers bringing workers back to the office may be inviting them to an unfamiliar place

Millions of office workers and the companies that employ them will discover in 2021 whether the work practices they hurriedly adopted in the pandemic are a new normal or a crisis make-do best left behind. In the process, employers will begin to learn whether the workplace bets they’re making for the future are winners or losers.

The stakes are high. Only when returning to the office becomes a safe option will we see how employees feel about it after months of working from home. Beyond WFH policies, employers will confront major decisions on commercial real estate, including how much to have, where to put it, and how to design it. The future of cities, some with areas that are almost deserted now, will begin to reveal itself. Perhaps most important for the long run, employers will learn more about the hard-to-measure value of bringing employees together and balance it against the easy-to-measure savings of letting them work remotely.

CEOs are sharply divided on these issues. High-profile tech companies—Facebook, Twitter, Zillow, others—have told employees they can work from home indefinitely. Twitter is subleasing over 100,000 square feet of its office space in San Francisco. Outdoor retailer REI went further, selling its new, unused corporate campus in Bellevue, Wash., and making remote work a “normalized model,” as CEO Eric Artz put it.

But other corporate heavyweights, including AbbVie, Alphabet, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and Johnson & Johnson are leaning the other way. They want their office workers back in the office as soon as safely possible. Their reasons share a theme. “We believe collaboration and innovation are fueled in large part by the connections of people,” Johnson & Johnson HR chief Peter Fasolo tells Fortune. Chase CEO Jamie Dimon explained to MSNBC that “there’s a huge value to working together in terms of collaboration and creativity and training the younger people.” IBM HR chief Diane Gherson notes the “bank of trust we all build when we work together physically.” Research shows that trust is essential to creativity, and nothing builds trust like in-person interaction.

Will the permissive WFHers find that their company’s culture and creativity wither over time? Will the back-to-the-office advocates discover that many employees now consider commuting a miserable experience they’d like to ditch? Both groups of employers face risks, which 2021 will illuminate.

Most employers will make changes to their workplaces, often major changes, if they haven’t done so already. In the strange new post-COVID world, they’ll somehow have to reconcile conflicting imperatives. Employers will reduce office space because they don’t need it or they have to cut costs; 76% of CEOs in an October survey by Fortune said they’ll be cutting office space. But they’ll also have to allocate more square feet per worker. Even if distancing mandates are eventually repealed, employers will likely continue to use more spacious floor plans—“de-densified” in real estate talk—so workers feel safe.

Another conflict: The hottest trends in office real estate in recent years have been “community” and amenities, which employees and employers still want—but how to deliver them to people who may remain wary of close quarters for a long time? Landlords provide community by organizing book and travel clubs, tastings, speakers, and other events that have had to be canceled or digitized. “Community will be central,” says Emma Buckland, global president of property management at the CBRE real estate services firm. “This crisis is highlighting the need for community.”

But meeting that need won’t be easy. It’s the same with office building amenities. “Restaurants, gyms, terraces—they’ll all need different planning,” says Buckland. Employers enthusiastically bringing workers back to the office may be inviting them to an unfamiliar place.

Most CEOs think they’ll arrive at a hybrid model with some employees in offices and others working remotely. In a Fortune survey conducted with Deloitte, they said they expect 33% of employees to be working remotely in January 2022. Those cutting space say they’re most likely to eliminate satellite offices.

But that’s the view from inside the whirlwind of the pandemic. The world may look and feel starkly different as vaccines are distributed and maskless human interaction slowly resumes. Right now it seems everyone is predicting the future of work. In 2021, it will arrive.

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