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This is when major companies say many employees will start coming back to the office

Key Points
  • Many large corporations are expecting to have more than half of their employees back to offices in September, according to recent surveys that CNBC conducted with executives at firms across sectors of the economy.
  • A Covid-19 vaccine and the potential for a second wave of coronavirus infections are also likely to influence a full return from remote work to physical workplaces.
  • Staffing experts say productivity remains a key metric, and a post-Labor Day return date may be voluntary for many workers.
People stand in line for a temperature check outside an office building.
SeongJoon Cho | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As many U.S. cities and states begin to enter phases 2 and 3 of coronavirus reopenings, employees around the country are wondering when their office will call them back. With building concerns about a second wave of infections and uncertain progress on a potential Covid-19 vaccine, most large employers have not formally disclosed when, if at all, they plan to bring their employees back from remote work. But there is reason for many workers to be pegging an office return to September.

Recent surveys of senior executives conducted by CNBC indicate that many companies expect 50% of their employees or more to be coming back to workplaces in September.  

Just about three-fourths (74%) of executives holding senior technology positions at firms across various sectors of the economy say that at least 50%, it not more, of their firm's workers are currently working remote. But that is expected to change after the summer. A little over half (52%) of respondents to a recent CNBC Technology Executive Council survey indicated that less than half of their workers would be remote after Sept. 1.

Approximately what percentage of your organization's workforce do you anticipate will be working remotely on Sept. 1? (CNBC Technology Executive Council survey, June 2020)

Many senior technology executives in top positions at firms across a variety of sectors of the economy expect the percentage of their workforce still performing jobs remotely to be under 50% by September.
CNBC Technology Executive Council Q2 2020 Survey.

Twenty-five of the 146 members of the CNBC Technology Executive Council responded to this survey, which was conducted from June 3–15, 2020. 

The coming shift back to the office for many workers was also indicated by chief financial officers in a May survey of the CNBC Global CFO Council. A majority of workforces (at least 75%) were remote, according to North American respondents to the CFO survey. But that is expected to drop below 50% by September, among North American-based firms. About one-third (34%) of global CFOs taking the survey said they expect that less than a quarter of their workforce will still be working remotely as of September. 

Approximately what percentage of your organization's workforce do you anticipate will be working remotely on Sept. 1? (CNBC Global CFO Council, May 2020)

U.S.-based CFOs, as well as their global counterparts, also expect a significant workforce shift away from remote and back to the office in September.
CNBC Global CFO Council Survey, Q2 2020

The CNBC Global CFO Council survey was conducted May 14–28, 2020, and included responses from 41 of the 130 global members.

Some workers will never be coming back. Major technology companies, including Twitter, Facebook and Google, have told employees they can work from home until the end of 2020. In some cases, that may become forever or, in the least, result in companies having 50% of their employees remote over the next decade.

"They wouldn't be doing that if they didn't have good data that people are being productive and still getting their work done diligently at home," said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a firm that works with companies on workforce issues. 

The CNBC Technology Executive Council survey found that only 10% of respondents said workplace productivity had declined during the migration to majority remote work. Forty-eight percent of survey takers said their team's productivity was higher, while 40% said it was about the same as before the pandemic.   

Employers may not be in a rush to bring all workers back with productivity not suffering and many workers working harder and longer hours from home, according to the survey. There are also indications from additional survey work that firms are still planning layoffs in the coming months.

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While some manufacturing operations never closed, or closed only briefly, essential employees across industries are now coming back in the professional sector. Investment banks such as Morgan Stanley and J.P. Morgan are bringing traders back to New York City offices in June. CNN started bringing some workers back in June and said another phase of returning workers would come in early September. But its president, Jeff Zucker, said in a late May memo to employees, "We expect that the majority of you will not be able to return to our offices this calendar year." 

Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of the recruiting and staffing firm LaSalle Network, said that bringing employees back to the office will depend on several factors, including a potential second spike of coronavirus cases, the correlation between company profits and flexibility, and the unemployment rate. 

Gimbel expects many companies to offer an optional return date. "The advice I've seen a lot of people give is give a voluntary return date and ease people back into it so that post-Labor Day, mandatory return to work won't be that much of a mental obstacle." 

Companies may also need to be flexible with returning workers based on child-care needs, with the potential for schools to reopen in the fall with staggered schedules and students attending on alternating days or weeks.

While not for a majority of jobs in the U.S., there are many positions that can be performed remotely as a permanent position.

"Thirty-five percent to 40% of all jobs in the country can be done from home, so the pool of people that are going to continue to work from home is certainly going to be much larger than before the pandemic," Challenger said.

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