The impact of return-to-work uncertainty on workers

Many workers are left in the dark about when and if their employers will rehire them. It’s taking its toll on those who want to plan their lives and settle down.

After two years living in Southeast Asia, Alex moved back to the UK in March 2021, with her husband Joe following a few months later. Both Londoners by origin, they wanted to put down roots somewhere outside the city. “My dream was to live by the sea,” says Alex. “We moved in with Joe’s parents, and tried to decide where we could buy a place.”

The couple began house hunting on the south coast of England, and came close to putting in an offer. But after months of uncertainty about whether they would be required back in the office, the consultancy business Joe works for announced it was looking for a space in central London. “That was a curveball, because it came after several years of not having an office – and there was no clear explanation of how often he would need to be back in,” says Alex, who works as a civil servant. 

Then, Alex’s bosses told her she would be expected to come in four days a month. “Although no one was going to take our register at the door, there was a clear expectation from line managers, with the possibility of going up to eight days at some point in the future,” she says. “It was never clear what would happen after the eight-day policy introduction – which is frustrating, and means it’s taken us a very long time to settle back into life here.”

Amid the ebb and flow of Covid-19, and multiple return-to-work false starts, there are many things about which workers are still highly uncertain. Where will employees need to be to carry out their roles? How often will they need to be there? Will there be any leeway for those who can’t – for whatever reason – fulfil that expectation? All these are questions for which most employers still don’t have the answers, either. 

Left in limbo, it’s been difficult for many knowledge workers to make life decisions with any kind of confidence, whether that’s buying a house like Alex, moving cities, arranging caregiving responsibilities – or putting into place many of the jigsaw pieces that make up a worker’s life.

‘Return-to-the-office is a major disrupter’ 

Some businesses had outlined their hybrid-work strategies and even set a date for implementation before the Covid-19 Omicron variant became widely available. However, when the number of infections increased in late 2021 and some governments issued new work-from-home orders, many of those discussions came to a halt. Conversations became convoluted and tricky in the United States, where the state system resulted in a patchwork approach to working from home recommendations.

Companies that want to bring workers back have made individual policies since then, but much of this guidance is still murky and vague, and many companies have struggled to communicate with their workforces. And corporate secrecy has caused years of confusion among employees: according to a May 2022 survey conducted by communications firm Magenta Associates, Two-thirds of the 2,000 UK employees polled said they have no idea how, when, or where they are supposed to work.

This is having an effect, according to Dan Schawbel, founder of research firm Workplace Intelligence, which tracks business trends. “A poorly managed return-to-work plan can have a significant negative impact on employee well-being. Employees are stressed and concerned about returning to work knowing that new variants of Covid are spreading, having to pay to commute again as gas prices rise, and the uncertainty of what office life will be like on a daily basis.”

He explains that because many employees have been working remotely full-time for the past two years, their ability to be with their families, set boundaries, and manage their work-life responsibilities is severely hampered.

This stress is falling on people who have been putting off major decisions because of the hazy picture of returning to work. Those who made significant changes during the pandemic are also on edge: Harvard University examined migration using change-of-address requests submitted to the United States Postal Service, discovering a massive wave of moves early in the pandemic and again in late 2020, with more individuals moving than families.

Many Americans have relocated from major cities to suburbs and smaller towns that are still close to where they live. Jobs are theoretical in nature. For example, according to the US Census Bureau, during Covid, 91% of suburban counties saw more people moving in than out. The shift was less pronounced in the United Kingdom, but it was still noticeable as people sought more outdoor space and a dedicated workspace. Payrolls in London fell 3.2% in June 2021 compared to February 2020, the largest drop of any UK region. 

While this data does mean that many workers are still within commuting distance of their offices, there are still logistics for them to figure out, contingent on their companies finalising return-to-office policies. “Lots of employees, especially millennials, have already relocated, bought a house, had a kid and got childcare sorted,” says Schawbel. “On a daily basis, employees have to grip with the fear of not knowing what each day at the office brings and those with families may have to rearrange their childcare situation and rely on their partners to fulfil many of the home responsibilities they did, which may not always be possible.”

It was never clear what would happen after the eight-day policy introduction – which is frustrating, and means it’s taken us a very long time to settle back into life here – Alex

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For those who settled outside commuting distance, the worry goes deeper – they may have to uproot their lives again. In November 2021, Leah, who works in the DEI department at a London-based consulting firm, bought a house in northern England with her boyfriend, not far from her family, and with a lot more space. They even got a dog.

“The decision was based on the impression that we could carry on working from wherever,” she says. “Now, although no one’s said explicitly you need to come back to the office, there’s a lot coming from high-up about how much better it is to be face-to-face.”

It takes more than three hours each way from her home to the office, and although Leah doesn’t mind the journey, she’s having to do it more frequently than expected. She often has to book last minute return tickets, which means spending around £80 ($95) of her own money each time. That train arrives at 10 a.m., and leaves after 7 p.m., eventually getting her home at 11 p.m. Arriving or leaving any earlier would push the ticket to upwards of £150.

“I keep thinking, have I made the wrong decision by moving?” she says. “At the time, it was a good idea, but I don’t want to be that one person on a video call when everybody else is in the office – I actually like being in the office.” If in the short-term, Leah’s employer sets a certain number of days she needs to be in each week, commuting is going to be unmanageable because of the cost and inconvenience.