The Post-COVID-19 Workplace – What Employers and Employees Are Thinking About

Now that we are more than one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, there is one thing that is certain: there is no single way to safely bring employees back into the office.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported that only 11 percent of employers in a Conference Board survey expect to require all of their workers to return to the office full time. Employers also indicated that they expect that at least 25 percent of work time will be from home, and whether they decide to bring employees back into the office will depend on perceived safety, vaccination rates, and the comfort of employees returning to the office.

While employers are grappling with how to safely have employees return to the office, employees are also grappling with whether it would be better for them to return to the office or continue to work remotely. Employees appear to believe that if they choose to work from home, they are less likely to be involved in important decisions within the organization, and are likely to be less respected than their colleagues who do return to the office. In fact, employees believe that those who continue to work remotely are less likely to get promoted, more likely to be viewed unfavorably by their bosses, and less likely to have an adequate work-life balance. And across the board, remote workers appear to spend more time in meetings, spend more hours working, and experience burnout more readily than their colleagues who return to the office.

A recent article in Axios@Work noted that the issue is not whether everyone is in the office or everyone is remote. The real issue is when an office splits into two groups: those who come into the office vs. those who stay home. When it does, according to Axios@Work, there are likely to be several groups who are at risk of getting left behind. These include working parents, especially women; those who for various reasons decide to remain home while their colleagues are having in-person meetings; and new hires who miss out on connections with other workers and mentors.

The Harvard Business School has been looking at this issue extensively. In an article entitled “COVID Killed the Traditional Workplace. What Should Companies Do Now?” 13 faculty members offered their perspectives on what the post-pandemic workplace will be like. Employers, they suggested, should consider how much face time at the office is really necessary, have honest conversations with employees about their perspectives on returning to the office, weigh the risks of loneliness associated with remote work, consider a flexible hybrid approach, be honest about the company’s needs, keep talking about caregiving obligations, show compassion amid the stress that employees are feeling especially those with family responsibilities including school-age children who would normally be in the classroom, be sensitive to trauma and burnout – an increasingly common occurrence among those working remotely, lead with empathy and understanding, prove that the work space is healthy, make work inspiring whether in or out of the office, and be fair when deciding who returns to the office and who works remotely. Employers would do well to remember, one faculty member suggested, that when employees work from home, productivity actually goes up. Commute times disappear, operational costs get slashed, and employers can tap talent from other cities, states or even countries.

In a recent NARC-sponsored webinar, four regional council executive directors[1] offered their perspectives on the post-pandemic workplace. One year into the pandemic, three of the four indicated that, like most employers, they are grappling with how to safely reopen or keep their offices open. While they noted that productivity has not been an issue – staff are doing great work when working remotely – there remain benefits to both. In-person office work brings people together and closer to the decision-making process, but remote work is contributing to gender equity and overall climate improvements.

No matter when or how offices are opened, these directors indicated that the goal must always be to, first and foremost, keep people healthy and safe and, secondarily, accommodate family needs. They also said that while they cannot compel employees to get the Covid-19 vaccine, they have been expressing strong support for their staff doing so.

One of the most difficult decisions they will have to make is how and when to bring their boards back to the office for in-person meetings. All indicated that they are using technology as best as they can, but also acknowledged that it is not perfect. The willingness of board members to get vaccinated varied greatly by region, but what did not, was the desire of boards to return to in-person meetings where they can have the benefit of socializing.

Travel is another significant issue. It is either being prohibited for now or dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Travel in general, however, is nowhere near back to normal and probably will not be for some time.

So where does this leave us? Actually, it leaves us with few definitive answers, and a lot of questions yet to be answered. But what it does make clear is that there have been some real advantages to remote working that have contributed to a more productive and equitable workplace. NARC is committed to hosting an ongoing conversation with members on the post-COVID-19 workplace and we anticipate that the webinar we just held will be the beginning of a series of webinars and articles that will assist executive directors make sound, realistic, and safe decisions.

  • [1] Kristina Egan, Executive Director, Greater Portland Council of Governments, Portland, Maine
  • Brian Martin, Executive Director, Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission, Dayton, Ohio
  • Mike Eastland, Executive Director, North Central Texas Council of Governments, Dallas/Fort Wayne, Texas
  • Miriam Gallow-Wiles, Executive Director, Southwest Colorado Council of Governments, Durango, Colorado

Support the FCC Emergency Broadband Benefit Program!

The National Association of Regional Councils (NARC) recently became an outreach partner for the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBBP). The Emergency Broadband Benefit is a program to help households struggling to pay for internet service during the pandemic. This new benefit will connect eligible households to jobs, critical healthcare services, and virtual classrooms. EBBP will provide a discount of up to $50 per month towards broadband service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on Tribal lands. Eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute $10-$50 toward the purchase price. The Emergency Broadband Benefit is limited to one monthly service discount and one device discount per household.

Here are some answers to some of the most common questions about EBBP:

Who Is Eligible for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program?

A household is eligible if one member of the household:

  • Receives benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch program or the school breakfast program, including through the US Department of Agriculture Community Eligibility Provision, or did so in the 2019-2020 school year;
  • Received a Federal Pell Grant during the current award year;
  • Experienced a substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020 and the household had a total income in 2020 below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers;
  • Meets the eligibility criteria for a participating providers’ existing low-income or COVID-19 program; or
  • Qualifies for the Lifeline program or participates in one of the following federal assistance programs:
    • Medicaid
    • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
    • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
    • Federal Public Housing Assistance
    • Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit; or
    • A household’s income is at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines for a household of that size.

How Do EBBP-Eligible Households Enroll?

If a household is already a Lifeline participant, they will not need to apply for EBBP or provide any new documents to prove eligibility. Applicants only need to opt-in to a plan provided by their current broadband provider or request enrollment in the program. Current Lifeline subscribers can keep their current Lifeline benefit while also adding a plan that is offered through the EBBP.  People who are not currently participating in Lifeline must apply for the EBBP through the National Lifeline Verifier.

When Can EBBP-Eligible Households Apply?

The FCC has not set a date for enrollment to begin. However, enrollment is expected to start by May 2021. The enrollment period is required to close six months after the Secretary of Health and Human Services determines that the pandemic emergency is over or when the $3.2 billion appropriated by Congress has been exhausted, whichever occurs first.

Who are Emergency Broadband Benefit Providers and Where can I Find them?

The FCC recently unveiled a downloadable data table consisting of all broadband providers who have elected to participate in EBBP. The list will be updated as more providers join the program. Individuals can search by state for fixed broadband services and mobile broadband services. Fixed broadband services are provided to your home, or a single location. These include cable, fiber optic, DSL, satellite, and fixed wireless services. Mobile broadband services are device-based and available throughout the service provider’s cellular coverage area, similar to cell phone services.

The National Association of Regional Councils will offer support and information to regional and local communities to help the FCC mobilize people and organizations and share important consumer information about the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. To learn more about the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, please check out the resources provided by our national partners at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) and Next Century Cities (NCC).

Biden Infrastructure Plan Summary

Biden Announces American Jobs Plan
Yesterday afternoon President Biden introduced his American Jobs Plan in Pittsburgh. This wide-ranging proposal would invest in transportation infrastructure of all types, affordable housing, public schools, colleges and childcare facilities, VA hospitals, water, electricity transmission, electric vehicles, broadband, workforce development and more. 

Plan Overview:
According to the initial outline released by the administration, the plans seeks to: create millions of good jobs, rebuild our country’s infrastructure, and position the United States to out-compete China. The plan would put significant focus on targeting investment to traditionally underinvested areas, including neighborhoods bisected by interstate highway facilities, rural areas, and more. The plan also focuses heavily on revitalizing American manufacturing, research and development, and worker and workplace protections. 

The price tag for this initial proposal is estimated at $2 trillion, which represents an investment of approximately 1% of GDP per year for a period of eight years. This would be offset significantly by changes to the tax code, including increases in the taxes that businesses pay. 

An important note: the surface transportation funding contained in the bill is not for a reauthorization package but is above and beyond funding through the FAST Act authorization. In a call with stakeholders today, USDOT also indicated these funds would be performance-based and not distributed by formula. So the details on these proposals will be extremely important to understanding who might receive the funds and how they can be used. 

Below are the areas of focus of the plan and a brief outline of what the investment in each area would accomplish: 

Transportation: $571 billion 

  • Modernize 20,000 miles of highways, roads, and main-streets.  

  • Fix the ten most economically significant bridges in the country in need of reconstruction.

  • Repair the worst 10,000 smaller bridges.

  • Replace thousands of buses and rail cars, repair hundreds of stations, renew airports, and expand transit and rail into new communities.

  • Bridges, highways, roads and main streets: increase of $115 billion. These funds are in addition to and separate from FAST Act surface transportation authorization and likely will not be distributed by formula.

  • Road Safety: $20 billion, to improve road safety for all users, including increases to existing safety programs and a new Safe Streets for All program to fund state and local “vision zero” plans and other improvements to reduce crashes and fatalities, especially for cyclists and pedestrians. 

  • Transit: $85 billion, to modernize existing transit and help agencies expand their systems to meet rider demand.

  • Amtrak/Passenger Rail: $80 billion, to address Amtrak’s repair backlog; modernize the high traffic Northeast Corridor; improve existing corridors and connect new city pairs; and enhance grant and loan programs that support passenger and freight rail safety, efficiency, and electrification. 

  • Electric Vehicles: $174 billion, including for manufacturers, consumers, and state and local governments. Incentivizes the build-out of a national charging network and would replace 50,000 diesel transit vehicles and electrify at least 20 percent of our yellow school bus fleet through a new Clean Buses for Kids Program at the Environmental Protection Agency, with support from the Department of Energy.

  • Airports: $25 billion, including funding for the Airport Improvement Program, upgrades to FAA assets that ensure safe and efficient air travel, and a new program to support terminal renovations and multimodal connections for affordable, convenient, car-free access to air travel.

  • Inland waterways, coastal ports, land ports of entry, and ferries: $17 billion, including a Healthy Ports program to mitigate the cumulative impacts of air pollution on neighborhoods near ports.

  • Equity and Access: $20 billion, for a new program that will reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments and ensure new projects increase opportunity, advance racial equity and environmental justice, and promote affordable access.

  • Large Projects: $25 billion, for a dedicated fund to support ambitious projects that have tangible benefits to the regional or national economy but are too large or complex for existing funding programs.

Resilience: $50 billion 

  • Dedicated investments to improve infrastructure resilience, including investments in FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program and investments in nature-based infrastructure, climate-smart technologies, and water efficiency and recycling.

Water: $111 billion 

  • Replace 100 percent of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines and upgrade and modernize America’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems, tackle new contaminants, and support clean water infrastructure across rural America.

Broadband: $100 billion 

  • Build high-speed broadband infrastructure to reach 100 percent coverage and reduce the cost of broadband internet service and promote more widespread adoption.

Electric Grid: $100 billion  

  • Build a more resilient electric transmission system and incentivize investment in clean electricity.  

  • $16 billion for plugging orphan oil and gas wells and cleaning up abandoned mines.

  • $5 billion for remediation and redevelopment of Brownfield and Superfund sites.

  • $10 billion for public land conservation, including development of a Civilian Climate Corps.

  • Invests in Economic Development Agency’s Public Works program (while lifting the cap of $3 million on projects) and in “Main Street” revitalization efforts through HUD and USDA.

  • Specifically targets investments in the development of new markets and new industries. 

Affordable Housing: $213 billion 

  • Produce, preserve, and retrofit more than two million affordable and sustainable homes, including a plan to eliminating state and local exclusionary zoning laws; build and rehabilitate more than 500,000 homes for low- and middle-income homebuyers.

  • $20 billion in tax credits through the Neighborhood Homes Investment Act (NHIA).

  • $40 billion to improve the infrastructure of the public housing system in America.

  • Upgrade homes through block grant programs, the Weatherization Assistance Program, and by extending and expanding home and commercial efficiency tax credits.

  • $27 billion Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator to mobilize private investment into distributed energy resources; retrofits of residential, commercial and municipal buildings; and clean transportation.

Public schools: $100 billion 

  • Upgrade and build new public schools, through $50 billion in direct grants and an additional $50 billion leveraged through bonds.

Colleges: $12 billion 

  • Community college infrastructure.

Child Care Facilities: $25 billion 

  • Upgrade childcare facilities and increase the supply of childcare in areas that need it most.

  • Child Care Growth and Innovation Fund for states to build a supply of infant and toddler care in high-need areas.

  • Expanded tax credit to encourage businesses to build childcare facilities at places of work (employers receive 50 percent of the first $1 million of construction costs per facility).

VA Hospitals: $18 billion 

  • Modernization of Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics.

Federal Buildings: $10 billion 

  • Modernization, sustainability, and resilience of federal buildings.

  • Federal Capital Revolving Fund to support investment in a major purchase, construction or renovation of Federal facilities.

Care Economy: $400 billion  

  • Expanding access to quality, affordable home- or community-based care for aging relatives and people with disabilities by expanding access to long-term care services under Medicaid.

R&D and New Technologies: $180 billion 

  • $50 billion in the National Science Foundation (NSF), creating a technology directorate that will collaborate with and build on existing programs across the government.

  • $30 billion in additional funding for R&D that spurs innovation and job creation, including in rural areas.

  • $40 billion in upgrading research infrastructure in laboratories.

  • $35 billion for climate science innovations, including ARPA-C to develop new methods for reducing emissions and building climate resilience.

  • $5 billion increase in funding for other climate-focused research.

  • $15 billion in demonstration projects for climate R&D priorities.

  • $10 billion R&D investment at HBCUs and other MSI.

  • $15 billion in creating up to 200 centers of excellence that serve as research incubators at HBCUs and other MSIs.

Manufacturing and Small Businesses: $300 billion 

  • $50 billion to create a new office at the Department of Commerce dedicated to monitoring domestic industrial capacity and funding investments to support production of critical goods.

  • $50 billion in semiconductor manufacturing and research, as called for in the bipartisan CHIPS Act. 

  • $30 billion over 4 years to create U.S. jobs and prevent the severe job losses caused by pandemics through major new investments in medical countermeasures manufacturing; research and development; and related biopreparedness and biosecurity.

  • $46 billion to jumpstart clean energy manufacturing through federal procurement.

  • $20 billion in regional innovation hubs and a Community Revitalization Fund, including at least ten regional innovation hubs to leverage private investment to fuel technology development, link urban and rural economies, and create new businesses in regions beyond the current handful of high-growth centers. The Community Revitalization Fund will support innovative, community-led redevelopment projects that can spark new economic activity, provide services and amenities, build community wealth, and close the current gaps in access to the innovation economy for communities of color and rural communities that have suffered from years of disinvestment.

  • $14 billion for NIST to bring together industry, academia, and government to advance technologies and capabilities critical to future competitiveness.

  • Quadruple support for the Manufacturing Extensions Partnership.

  • $52 billion in domestic manufacturers.

  • $31 billion in programs that give small businesses access to credit, venture capital, and R&D dollars, including funding for community-based small business incubators and innovation hubs to support the growth of entrepreneurship in communities of color and underserved communities 

  • $5 billion for a new Rural Partnership Program to help rural regions, including Tribal Nations, build on their unique assets and realize their vision for inclusive community and economic development and will empower rural regions by supporting locally-led planning and capacity building efforts, and providing flexible funding to meet critical needs. 

Workforce Development: $100 billion 

  • $40 billion investment in a new Dislocated Workers Program and sector-based training.

  • $12 billion investment for workforce development opportunities in underserved communities.

  • $5 billion over eight years in support of evidence-based community violence prevention programs.

  • $48 billion in American workforce development infrastructure and worker protections, including registered apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships and strengthening the pipeline for more women and people of color to access these opportunities and supporting community college partnerships that build capacity to deliver job training programs based on in-demand skills.

  • Worker Protections: $10 billion for enforcement of provisions related to workplace safety and health rules.