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Companies tell employees it's time to return to the workplace

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK. Are you still working from home? I am - still broadcasting from my basement for almost two years now. Well, my teleworking friends, it might be time to buy some grown-up pants without an elastic waist and get back to the office. Companies large and small are saying, after two years of the pandemic, it's time. NPR's Andrea Hsu caught up with a couple workers who are venturing back.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Just last week, after two years of virtual teaching, Heidi Brooks got to see her students face to face. Her class on everyday leadership at the Yale Law School was two hours long. Her commute is only 15 minutes, but somehow, getting there, getting reoriented and getting home took her nearly five hours.

HEIDI BROOKS: You know, I had to go to my office. I had to walk across campus. I had to figure out kind of a parking situation. Where is my office, anyway? Where - do I have an office chair? Who took it? Oh, my gosh, it was me. I forgot two years ago. It's actually in my home office.

HSU: After this long period of remote work, she says, there are so many ridiculously basic things she has to figure out all over again. And Brooks, who does some consulting on the side, says that's something companies need to anticipate as workers head back to the office.

BROOKS: We're used to so much productivity in so many hours without travel, without time between meetings, that I think our productivity expectations might be pretty high.

HSU: Whereas what you really need to keep in mind, she says, is that you're not going back to the same place you left two years ago. Things have changed. We've changed. We need to relearn how to interact with colleagues, old and new.

BROOKS: We've got these kind of questions about, you know, what does it mean to be part of a team? Am I on this team if I've never actually met them before? And what does it mean to actually have a shared experience?

HSU: According to a Gallup survey just two months ago, about a quarter of full-time workers were still working exclusively from home. Some were supposed to go back last fall, at least a few days a week, but then came delta and omicron. Now employers are rolling out new return dates. Microsoft wants its workers to start coming back next month. Ford says it's bringing more corporate employees back in April. And Wells Fargo announced that starting March 14, workers will be back on a hybrid schedule three days a week. Lesley Gantt, who works for Wells Fargo in brand marketing, is elated.

LESLEY GANTT: My first thing that I'm going to gain back are people (laughter) - like, physically seeing people.

HSU: She'll have to readjust to the commute, but there's a payoff at the end of it.

GANTT: You know, you get in in the morning, and you grab your best friend at work, go have coffee and get ready for the day.

HSU: A day that will look different, starting with the seating arrangement. Workers at Wells Fargo won't have assigned desks. Instead, they'll have neighborhoods of offices and workspaces with rotating residents, depending on who's in on which days.

GANTT: So that's going to be a huge kind of learning curve, I think, just getting used to that openness.

HSU: Now, Gantt doesn't have children. She doesn't have a pet who's used to having her around all day. She says her husband, who will continue to work from home, is excited to have the whole house to himself. But she knows not everyone is looking forward to office life, and that's OK, too.

GANTT: That's the human nature, right? Like, nothing is 100%, everybody's on board.

HSU: Heidi Brooks from Yale says companies and their employees do have a rare opportunity here to create a way forward together.

BROOKS: Now's the perfect moment. We're returning. We're changing. We're shifting. We're hopefully learning. I think we might be able to return to a better office than we had before.

HSU: A place where the well-being of workers will take top priority, even after the public health crisis is over.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOOD GIBES' "IN DEEP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.