During the prior virtual roundtable discussion in April, most attendees thought they would be ready to return to their offices by January 2021, with some even mentioning that September 2020 was a possibility. That optimism has long since passed. Now, most CEOs expect that their workforces won’t return in full force until the spring or summer of 2021 depending on the prospects of a safe and effective vaccine. The six companies headquartered in the US reported that only 5% of their staffs were working in office locations currently.
Several CEOs said that employees who worked in a lab setting have returned to continue mission-critical projects. As one CEO said, “We found that many people, especially those who needed to collaborate with colleagues, had reported ‘Zoom fatigue’ and were eager to get back into an environment where they could work and converse with other people in person.”
With that goal in mind, the company created alternating schedules, implemented regular COVID-19 testing, mandated wearing masks and required social distancing in the office.
Another CEO reported that his company had also reopened labs, but that the company gave high-risk employees the option to continue working from home. This blend of virtual and in-office working arrangements has so far proved successful.
Another CEO of a firm with an extensive presence in Asia said that flexible working arrangements were more productive for employees who were less constrained by normal working hours. He said the most productive times for his firm were in the early morning and evening when US employees engaged in conference calls with teams.
In an aside, he said offices in those economies have now returned to pre-pandemic operating procedures. Due to strict contact tracing controls and other rigorously enforced testing measures, employees in mainland China and Taiwan no longer needed to practice social distancing and often joined each other in conference rooms for video conferencing calls.
Rich Ramko, EY US, who led this segment of the roundtable, also asked whether the pandemic and resulting virtual working environment had prompted firms to take a serious look at their real-estate footprint. Nearly all CEOs agreed that they were considering significantly downsizing office space or at a minimum using the success of the virtual workplace to renegotiate new lease terms. They added that they didn’t expect any significant changes with lab space, which will likely continue to command premium rates.
Arda Ural, EY US, agreed that other practices at EY were also noticing a growing trend for companies to continue working from home, which would put additional pressure on landlords to renegotiate lease terms.
At the end of the 75-minute discussion, the attendees agreed to reconvene in March 2021.