A rendering of the redesigned workspace at Salesforce, as shown on the company’s website.
NEW YORK—Many Americans have been working remotely for much of the past 12 months. But recently there has been much discussion about how and when those who have been out of their offices for so long will begin the process of re-entry and what the office will look like when they arrive.

This process, at least in New York City, took a step forward earlier this week when the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, said city employees would begin making a return to their offices beginning May 3. “We’re going to make it safe, but we need our city workers back in their offices where they can do the most to help their fellow New Yorkers,” de Blasio said, according to a New York Times report. “And it’s also going to send a powerful message about this city moving forward.”

The return of office-workers to the Big Apple would certainly mark a milestone in the city’s effort to get back to its more normal, pre-pandemic routines. This could be just months away, as The Partnership for New York City, a business group, recently said it expected nearly half of Manhattan’s one million office workers to return to the office by September. However, “most will continue to work remotely at least part time.”

For many office managers, the challenge will be to ensure a six-foot distance between workstations, – which may or may not continue to be mandated. Employees will feel safer knowing they have a workstation with the appropriate social distance so they can focus on output, instead of worrying about getting sick.

As of early March, only 10 percent of those displaced NYC workers were back in the office. With so much focus on the state of remote work, it seems like a cottage industry of experts and reporters has sprung up to provide advice and comment to both employees and employers about what to expect.

Here’s a look at what some companies are planning as it relates to the timing of an office return, according to CBS News: Microsoft employees will have the option to return to their Washington offices starting next week; John Deere's first phase to return in-person to offices will begin in early April; about 200,000 Wells Fargo employees working remotely won’t begin shifting to the office until at least May; Amazon employees working from home will head in no earlier than July, while Google, Kraft Heinz and American Express are eyeing September, and Starbucks headquarters is looking at an October reopening.

Image courtesy of Forward Space, an authorized Steelcase dealer in Chicago.
In terms of what the office may look like, architectural firm Woods Bagot said it envisions large areas with sofas, armchairs and tables people can sit around to talk, with almost no screens in sight. Social areas will be mixed with tech-heavy stations where employees can do computer work in a more ergonomic set up than they have at home. But change might take some time to happen, according to Amanda Sanaway, a principal at the firm.

Here’s three other views of how the offices of a post-COVID-19 world may work:

• The cloud-based CRM company Salesforce has already announced a permanent work-from-anywhere policy, “alongside a shake-up of how it uses its real estate investments to fit with more hybrid styles of working,” TechRepublic reported. Specifically, Salesforce plans to transform its offices into hubs for teamwork and collaboration. That means: out go the desks, and in come the breakout spaces and meeting rooms.

• According to MIT Sloan Management Review, examples of new norms might include the following: all meeting rooms will have a video link to ensure that remote team members can join; for large all-hands meetings where some people will be in the office and some remote, everyone will still call in individually from their computers so those who are remote don’t feel left out. In addition, everyone whether they’re in the office or not, will be expected to be online (within reason) during a subset of normal work hours (for example, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. PST) to have some overlap with all coworkers. Everyone will share what they are working on for the week in a group email or Slack thread.

• The big Wall Street banks and investment groups remain wary of setting firm dates of when they’ll reopen offices, and the process could stretch for many months, Bloomberg reported earlier this month. “Still, the prospect of companies having to welcome a second class of virtual interns and analysts brings added urgency. Newcomers often used to learn by pulling up a chair behind a senior trader or tagging along during client meetings. That’s a model that’s harder to replicate in the world of video conferencing,” the report noted. “It’s important to be together for collaboration and communication,” John Buchanan, chief operating officer and head of strategy for Mizuho Americas, told Bloomberg at the time. “And one of the big things is training our younger folks. This is an apprenticeship business. People learn from their mentors.”

Amid all of this uncertainty, however, one thing does look inevitable: just as the exit from the office to the working-from-home world was filled with new twists and turns, the return trip promises to be a brand new adventure.