Almost a year into this pandemic, one thing is apparent: The changes the pandemic has wrought are indefinite. While the distribution of vaccines is a promising sign that a return to the office will be possible in 2021, the question is becoming not whether it’s feasible to return, but whether it’s needed.

So companies in 2021 will need to explore whether and how workers will return to the office once given the all-clear. And how companies respond may seal the fate of their talent brand. We don’t know today how their decision will affect future market positioning and hiring ability.

Crafting Strategy

In addition to how their decision benefits workers, it’s important that companies look at how their decision has the potential become a competitive differentiator, accelerating an organization to an employer-of-choice status.

Shifting to remote officially affects not just the workers. In addition to appealing to the spend category of labor, it can eliminate or reduce high-dollar facilities budgets with full-time offices for entire workforces by shifting to co-work collaboration spaces that provide in-person meeting places on demand.

The other huge potential benefit of embracing remote work for the long term comes from the comfort in recruiting from outside of your local market to find talent that is potentially higher quality, lower cost and more accurate to support the need. In a hyper-mature remote-work environment that starts to focus on work deliverables over 9-to-5 workdays, we even open up the potential to get more accurate with our contingent workforce spend by eliminating the time waste that comes from excess meetings and filling time between deliverables with billable non-productive time. Perhaps this even opens the door for diversified sourcing strategies that are inclusive of direct sourcing and IC utilization.

Talent Viewpoint

This may start to feel like an optional benefit for employers, but this organizational stance on remote work could become a deciding factor for top talent looking for opportunities. Remember, the investments many employers have made in virtual infrastructures, mobile asset deployment and, most important, training and change management to help users adapt quickly, have helped position them to engage labor and talent in a new and optimized way — remotely.

For workers who have now experienced and optimized this remote-work lifestyle, there will likely be some opposition to returning to a conventional workplace, and this topic may start to become just as important as rate of pay. For employers that are quick to return, consider what signal this sends to prospective talent and how this impacts your talent brand.

While it seems obvious that some workers will want to remain remote, there is a large portion of the workforce that is signaling they are ready to return to an office setting. As a full-time remote worker even prior to Covid-19, there are even moments when I long to go into an office, where kids won’t be making a cameo during meetings, where I’d have time during my commute to catch up on podcasts or decompress from a long day, and even the never-ending supply of coffee that used to fuel my days. I admit, though, part of this stems from nostalgia of the office environment of days past, not a desire to return to an office of closed doors, social distancing and limited-capacity break rooms.

One thing is very clear for organizations, though: Safety needs to be the top priority when deciding what is best for the workforce. If the past year has taught us anything, it is that organizations will need to take a flexible and agile approach to returning to the office and not rush the decision. The path forward may not be a straight line and companies should be ready to iterate their strategies and be responsive to what workers and the world around them are calling for.