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 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.
-  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