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The pandemic has altered the way Americans work. Are remote work and flex schedules temporary, or will they become the norm in trying to harness human capital?
By Tom Kertscher
f anything is newly calibrated in mid-pandemic America, it’s work.
For how much longer will “the office” and “commuting” be a meaningful part of the vernacular? How much are the bosses even in charge anymore?
For many months, as COVID-19 gave way to delta and then omicron, the signs have been unmistakable: millions quitting their jobs at a record pace; workers not only holding out for flexibility but demanding that they be made to feel valued; executives, managing the precarious balance, worrying about the loss of corporate culture and, of course, productivity.
So, what is the future of work?
What’s clear is that more of it, pandemic or not, will be done at home.
“I think this is something that has been in slow motion for a long time. What the pandemic did was accelerate the experiment,” said Jay Lauf ’86, co-founder and president of Charter, a New York City media and services company focused on the future of work. “In a lot of ways, the [work-from-home] experiment’s proven that it can be done, and done more readily and effectively.
“My hope is that we won’t necessarily snap back to the way things were before the pandemic, and that there’s a real opportunity to create more long-term systemic change that creates more high-functioning and equitable workplaces,” added Lauf, the former publisher of The Atlantic and WIRED.
The acceleration of remote work caused by COVID-19, said Erin Robertson ’14, human capital manager at Deloitte Consulting in Arlington, Va., “forced leaders to explore and think critically about where work is performed, how it’s done and who exactly does it. I think, specifically from a workforce perspective, the shift toward a hybrid environment proved that people can work efficiently; they can work effectively without being in person.
“I think it also demonstrated how a more flexible work environment can actually attract and retain more diverse and geographically dispersed talent, and it illuminated different cost-saving opportunities.”
THE PANDEMIC JOLT
Among the factors driving the change is a shift in the balance of power away from employers and toward employees. It’s historically significant.
The federal right to unionize (1935), a federal minimum wage (1938) and a 40-hour workweek (1938) came about only after decades of struggle at the ballot box and through strikes, said Mark Stelzner, an assistant professor of economics at Conn, whose research focuses on income inequality in the United States. Since the 1980s, some of the worker gains have eroded and union membership has plummeted. The emergence of the coronavirus brought a resurgence in worker power.
“In terms of COVID, there was this jolt to the employer-employee relationship, and this jolt forced many employees in a number of ways to reevaluate their relationship with their employers,” Stelzner said.
Therapists who began counseling patients remotely realized that maybe they didn’t need to be part of a clinic. Front-line workers who were forced to show up on the job and risk their health questioned how much their interests were being considered. Layoffs led some people to downsize their lives; in consuming less, they didn’t need to generate as much income.
Some front-line workers decided the health risks weren’t worth it. They opted for other jobs or perhaps went back to live with their parents while awaiting safer opportunities, Stelzner said. Some who quit jobs did so to protect themselves from COVID-19, or to protect their children by keeping them out of school or child care facilities. Others made a permanent or at least long-term decision. Couples, for example, chose one full-time income instead of two, or one full-time and one part-time income.
“COVID-19 has forced a reevaluation of life, people accepting that they are making less and consuming less,” Stelzner said. “Do I want to keep working to just buy some more luxury goods?”
The awakening led the country to this tipping point.
More than 19 million workers quit their jobs between April and September 2021, a record pace, according to the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. And an estimated 4.5 million workers quit or changed jobs in November 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Fifty-five percent of employees say that whether or not they can work flexibly will impact their decision to stay, according to the consulting firm Gartner.
At the same time, 36 percent of executives say the loss of corporate culture is the biggest challenge to hybrid work, according to PwC, the professional services network.
HYBRID SEEN AS THE ANSWER
The new expectations of employees, who have more bargaining power amid labor shortages, mean a shift to a hybrid model is likely to last as long as the pandemic does, and probably beyond.
“The office is a tool, not a place,” Lauf said. “It’s not a place where work gets done, it’s actually: How is the office a tool for facilitating work?”
A hybrid-work policy provides the opportunity “for all the benefits of colocation on days when you’re doing colocation, but it also provides the benefits of working from home in the moments that it’s more beneficial,” he said. “Companies, leaders and managers have come to the realization that some combination of those two things is ideal for productivity.”
In any flex policy, Lauf recommends that employers specify when employees are to work in the workplace, when collaboration is needed, and when they are to work at home, particularly when “head down” concentration is required. That precision also ensures fairness so that employees who might have the ability to spend more time in the office don’t get unfair amounts of facetime with the boss.
At the same time, managers will need more support as they adapt to guiding their direct reports, not only in the workplace but at home.
“The job of a manager used to be managing people’s 9-to-5 work, and now it’s actually managing them 24/7, making sure that they are looking after their well-being, their mental health, their ability to care-give and all the rest of it,” Lauf said. “I think there’s a lot more pressure on managers today than there ever has been.”
Managers can expect more productivity as their employees work in more comfortable settings without commuting, according to Robertson.
“Being less stressed is very much correlated to being more productive,” she said. “That can actually be responsible for up to $190 billion in annual U.S. health care costs. So, in terms of savings for organizations, eliminating stress as much as possible is a huge benefit to both them and employees.”
THE BENEFITS OF TOGETHERNESS
For some, giving employees the comforts of home can go too far.
Chris O’Dea ’98, managing director at Morgan Stanley in San Francisco, gained media attention in November 2021 for saying on a conference call: “If you’re 21 to 35, you are nuts not to be in the office all the time,” gaining knowledge from more-experienced co-workers.
A full-on push to return to the office may not be the norm, or even feasible, as variants of the coronavirus continue to pose threats. But employers such as Stephen Van Dyck ’98, partner in the Seattle firm LMN Architects, put emphasis on time in the workplace even as they embrace the transition to hybrid work.
“Our first step in returning to the office is going to be a hybrid model: three days in the office and two days of flexible work—you can work in the office, you can work at home, you can work somewhere else. We think that that is possible, that that could be the model in perpetuity,” he said.
“I don’t know where we’re going to wind up. I’m sure it will be more productive ultimately.”
Van Dyck said that while he values offering flexibility, he has also observed that remote-only work isn’t great for everyone, particularly younger employees in need of mentoring.
“Many people prefer working remotely. I also know that many people don’t,” Van Dyck said. “There’s been a lot more attention paid to people who feel like it’s going well in the remote world and less attention paid to those who aren’t experiencing remote work in a productive way.
“I think it’s really important for people to acknowledge that for a certain segment of the population, remote work has been very good. But I know that for many people, depending on their home lives, it’s hard to work at home. And the growth of young professionals is hard to achieve in a remote-working model.”
LMN Architects designed the Voxman Music Building at the University of Iowa, the Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, and the Cleveland Convention Center. Van Dyck sees these buildings, and buildings in general, as “systems that become important parts of people’s everyday lives.” Therefore, he believes much is lost when co-workers and collaborators don’t spend time together in shared spaces.
“The few days that I have worked in the office the past few months have been really productive in different ways,” he said. “People have remarked, almost unanimously, that it was such an exciting thing to be around each other again—the enthusiasm you won’t be able to get in a remote, collaborative setting, at least with the current technology.”
For his part, Professor Stelzner questions whether the shift away from the workplace is permanent.
“I think the knee-jerk impulse is for employers to bring workers back, but that’s been difficult, because employees like having a degree of freedom to be able to work from home at least some days of the week,” Stelzner said. “But employers want to make sure they have [some control] over the workplace. So, I think there’s definitely going to be pressure for employees to return to the office.”
Robertson sees the power shift toward employees as permanent, given labor shortages and competition for top talent.
“I think organizations that don’t adapt to what we’re calling ‘our new normal’ are really at a significant risk of losing employees who leave for companies that are offering greater flexibility,” she said.
Stelzner, though, believes that questions about the future of work should run deeper than whether worker productivity is better in the office or at home. He said that Americans’ social connections, through things such as church membership, participation in sports leagues and time spent with neighbors and friends, have been on the decline—to the detriment of society—since the 1970s.
So, spending less time in the workplace means even less socialization.
“The isolation due to COVID, maybe it helps us realize how important social connections really are,” he said. “But at the same time, the pandemic might also be breaking down the few social connections we have left, because we’ve been in this now for two years.”