Aon | Professional Services Practice
Release Date: November 2022
How Professional Service Firms are Returning to Working, Traveling, and Convening in North America
More than 24 months after COVID-19 closed offices around the world and suspended almost all business travel, we are starting to witness a sustained and meaningful return to office-based work and other pre-pandemic professional activities.
This is the first of an article series that will review a selection of key global markets, starting with the U.S. and Canada. The articles will examine how professional service firms are returning to office working, traveling, and convening.
A Business Imperative
Our North American clients have indicated that they believe that the return of staff to offices for at least some of the time is a business imperative. The top cited reasons were fostering the creative energy needed to develop innovative solutions for clients and to ensure appropriate mentorship for younger professionals.
For a variety of reasons, professional service firms have been very careful to avoid return-to-office mandates. Instead, announcements made earlier this year, including at Aon, have prioritized flexibility as the key pillar of return-to-office plans. We have seen firms grapple, however, with how detailed their plans should be. While smaller firms have rolled out single firm-wide plans, larger firms understandably prefer to set a global framework for what the future of work should look like but leave the operational specifics (how many days and how these days are coordinated, for example) to business unit or geographical leaders.
Despite advances in prevention, treatment, and testing, the pandemic has continued to challenge individuals and businesses across North America. Some firms announced partial return-to-office plans during the summer months of 2020, only to suspend or withdraw them later in the year when COVID-19 cases increased. A broader return began in mid-2021 but was inhibited by the emergence of new variants in July and November. However, this year may be an inflection point in moving beyond the pandemic. Most restrictions at and on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border have been lifted as attitudes have changed and as attention shifts to other global issues.
But even if this year does represent an inflection point, return-to-office plans face intense and multifaceted pushback from various segments of the professional services workforce grounded in the perceived benefits of remote work. Amid a very tight market for talent, firm leaders have listened to these concerns. It remains to be seen whether the current downturns in the economy and the talent market will impact the longevity of this flexibility. Some firms could adopt more aggressive stances on office attendance.Another return-to-office challenge, especially in large U.S. cities, concerns the workstyles of senior leaders. Some firms have been successful in attracting their city-dwelling young professionals back to offices but have struggled to do the same with partners and principals who may have moved from, for example, New York City to the Hudson Valley and now face an extended commute. Beyond the clear hurdle this poses to training and development, it could prompt some not to take the firm’s return-to-office messaging seriously.
The state of the talent market is just one of several important considerations that firms should ponder when crafting, communicating, and executing return-to-office plans. The most successful plans will be shaped by the voices of diverse sets of stakeholders representing various role levels within the firm. They will prioritize health and wellbeing, be cognizant of the legal and insurance landscapes, and have the agility to remain relevant as external conditions change.