Over the last few months, tech companies were optimistic that they'd be able to begin bringing employees back to their offices this fall. After 19 months of working mostly from home, companies like Google had come up with creative plans to allow employees the flexibility to come to the office or continue working remotely. 

Still, the hope was that the world was heading back towards normal, even if it looked different than before shutdowns and stay-at-home orders last spring. Now, however, as the pandemic surges again across different areas of the U.S. and the world, many companies are reconsidering their plans to bring everyone back to the office. 

In the last few weeks, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple have all said they will push their return into 2022. Now, Google's CEO, Sundar Pichai, has published a blog post explaining why that company plans to do the same. 

There are quite a few lessons from the post, but I want to focus on three words near the end. Here's the relevant portion: 

First, as offices continue to reopen, we hope to see more teams coming together where possible, whether it be for regular team meetings, brainstorming sessions around a whiteboard, or outdoor socials. For some locations, conditions are starting to improve, yet in many parts of the world, the pandemic continues to create uncertainty. Acknowledging that, we'll extend our global voluntary return-to-office policy through January 10, 2022 to give more Googlers flexibility and choice as they ramp back.

The important thing to notice is that while Pichai is clear that Google's goal is that its "offices continue to reopen," he uses three words that are the best reason I've seen yet for not returning to the office: "Flexibility and choice."

It's a familiar refrain from Pichai and Google. When he announced the company's "return to work" plan, he used the same three words. At the time, they were meant to reflect a commitment from Google to allow employees to make their own decision, along with their manager, about how to best meet the needs of the business as well as their own. 

Now, however, I think those three words are the best reason I've heard to not return to the office. At least not yet. Why? Because giving your employees flexibility and choice empowers them with a sense that they have more control over their time, their work, and their lives.

As Pichai mentions, the continuation of the pandemic is causing uncertainty for employees. That leads to anxiety, confusion, and stress. Being flexible and giving employees a choice goes a long way to solving that. 

Look, I understand that companies want to get their teams back in the office. Most managers believe that being together in person has real advantages over working remotely. In some cases, I'm sure that's true. 

Pichai points out that "the ability to reconnect in person has been re-energizing for many of us, and will make us even more effective in the weeks and months ahead." I'm sure that's true. I'm sure there are people who have loved the feeling of walking back into the office. I'm sure in many cases it feels like a form of victory--that Covid may have sidetracked us for a while, but it can't keep us down forever.

The problem is, not only does the surge of cases due to the Delta variant make it unclear whether it's safe to be back in the office, many employees simply don't want to return. Many would rather quit than return to the office. Some already have.

Google made a smart choice by providing employees the ability to make the decision for themselves. That's especially important in a world where there is still much uncertainty. It's important as employees try to make plans that involve more than what they do at work. They're trying to balance those responsibilities with everything else that is happening in their lives, as the world tries to find its way out of a pandemic that has gone on far too long. 

Many employees are still trying to navigate a lot of uncertainty in both their personal and professional lives. They are trying to figure out what school will look like for their children. They're deciding whether they are ready to be in an office all day after spending the past 19 months working from home. 

In making those decisions, companies that try to force a one-size-fits-all approach might quickly find that their employees no longer believe that it's a good fit for them. That's unfortunate when you consider that you might lose great talent not because they found a better gig or higher salary, but because they didn't feel like they had the flexibility or a choice about how and where they work. The good news is, Google just showed that it isn't that hard to give employees both.