Rethinking Where We Work

Jathan Janove, J.D. By Jathan Janove, J.D. April 13, 2021
Rethinking Where We Work

​When the scourge of COVID-19 is behind us, what will that mean for organizations that changed from onsite to remote work? Do they go back to mainly in-person work? Do they keep the current status quo? Or do they do something else?

Advocates for a Blended Return

Most organizational leaders I queried advocate a blended approach. "The COVID-19 pandemic significantly escalated our use of remote and virtual work technologies," said Scott Parson, president of the West Division of Americas Materials at CRH in Odgen, Utah. Despite fears of remote work undermining teamwork, "trust and understanding have actually increased as we've seen each other working in their homes and family environments," he said.

Parson does not intend to go back to the way things were pre-pandemic. Instead, there will be more remote options to accommodate what works best for employees and the business. "We plan to offer increased flexibility to our administrative, support and management teams. Flexibility will include full remote work, part-time remote work or full-time return to the office."

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Challenges of the Blended Approach

Like Parson's company, KSM Consulting plans a hybrid solution. However, Vice President of Talent Louonna Kachur, in Indianapolis, foresees challenges. "They are primarily logistical, making sure life and work are balanced and employees can juggle multiple competing priorities. Our organization embraces professional autonomy, so for our people it is important that they feel empowered to make the right choices and control their schedules for maximum effectiveness."

Kachur noted that the company is highly collaborative with clients, "which is easier to do in person and makes us better advisors and consultants. Our clients shouldn't experience any changes to how we work with them." As a result, she believes remaining completely remote would hurt company culture. "A lot of our secret sauce is having amazing talent in the same place at the same time. I worry most about the lack of development. … It will be more difficult to mentor early-career professionals and to train them up to be effective leaders. I also worry they just continue to do the same job in the same way and growth doesn't happen as seamlessly as it does when you have colleagues to push against your instincts."

Karin Dunn, president of PRD Management in Collingswood, N.J., added another word of caution: "Once back at the office, expectations for interaction will increase, and this can be exhausting." She recommended that leaders prepare by establishing new norms around office culture, including routine quiet times to focus and "red flag" symbols at the cubicle or office doorway "so people can preserve their sanity as everyone starts back up and begins stopping by."

When all jobs are not remote, leaders should be sensitive to perceived unfairness. "Our operation involves running apartment buildings," Dunn noted. "We have some front-facing staff members that can never work from home. You cannot fix a toilet or show an apartment from home." She cautioned against remote staff leaning on onsite staff to perform their job duties. "Asking your maintenance superintendent to make copies or distribute flyers to residents for activities, instead of coming in and doing it yourself, is the surest way to create a divide and resentment within the team."

Finally, not all individuals plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine, so it will still be important to ensure proper ventilation, physical distancing, barriers (such as Plexiglas shields), signage, capacity limitations in rooms and other considerations. "These steps will be vital to help reassure our employees that their work environment is as safe as it can be," said Colleen J. McManus, SHRM-SCP, HR executive and senior consultant with the state of Arizona. 

Make It a 'Triple Win'

The leaders I surveyed believe employees have more of an opening than they have ever had to request flexibility from their management teams. "The key," Dunn said, "is to make a proposal that is a 'triple win' solution—good for the employee, good for the company and good for the team/manager." She recommended that organization leaders assess company goals and look at everything with new eyes. What productivity gains or work norms do you want to preserve from the last year, and what do you hope will change or improve? "Before you simply bring everyone back, take some time to set up the workplace you always wished you had."

McManus added that "a state-of-the-art air circulation system may not only help to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, it also may reduce concerns, complaints and absenteeism resulting from colds and other viruses."

McManus recommended that employers ensure there is good infrastructure in place for employees dealing with mental health impacts resulting from the pandemic. "Benefits plans that provide great mental health options and employee assistance programs can provide reassurance and resources for employees when needed. Likewise, training for leaders to recognize the signs of mental stress and [post-traumatic stress disorder] in their employees, and tools to best address these situations, will help supervisors to feel more prepared when issues arise."

President John F. Kennedy famously once said, "When written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity." We know well the danger COVID-19 presents. It's becoming time to focus on opportunity.

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