Executive Leadership Coaching, Critical Initiative Delivery

5 minute read

Redefining What Work Looks Like After a Pandemic Hits

Jul 10, 2020

Written by: Paul Blodgett

I worked from home on my first day at Spinnaker, but not by design. It was early April, and only a few weeks earlier – almost overnight – the coronavirus had upended the paradigm of work as many of us knew it.

As the virus spread in major cities on both coasts, businesses quickly pushed their knowledge workers out of the office and sent them home, where they carved out workspaces in kitchens, bedrooms and even laundry rooms. I was among those, but, fortunately, I had a dedicated office in my house and some experience working from the road – a precursor to working from home.

By and large, corporate America was ready for this seismic shift in the workplace. Had we needed to ask full fleets of white-collar workers to work remotely 15 years ago (or even just 10), our technological infrastructure wouldn’t have been up to the challenge. But today’s workers are armed with laptops, smartphones and virtual machines with secure connectivity to work resources, allowing for minimal disruption to day-to-day business. Tools extend to apps and videoconferencing to keep in touch and move work forward, enabling 56% of modern jobs to be performed remotely, according to a recent post-COVID forecast. 

Workers have had to adapt to a different style of “in-person” meetings, as well; individuals who had historically shunned video conferencing as an option suddenly found themselves acclimating to near-constant use of the technology. It has also radically changed the hiring and interview process, with the majority of recruiting-related interviews now taking place in the digital world.

Since the start of the pandemic, a third of workers are now logging hours remotely – with no rush in sight for bringing them back to the office. Amazon and Capital One expect to maintain work-from-home models until the fall; Google and Facebook have extended that into next year. Even phone agents, long-tethered to call centers, were quickly able to start talking with customers remotely from their own dining rooms – a rare exception to hourly service workers who must still report to a workplace, such as bank tellers, restaurant staff, housekeeping teams and more.

As society continues to adapt to life for an unknown future with COVID-19, corporate leaders are struggling to define what form their workplace will take, particularly as states reopen with a phased loosening of restrictions. After three months of remote work activity, does returning to a traditional office environment have the same appeal, or even urgency, for your company and employees?

As a consulting firm, we know the pluses and minuses of working remotely, but even our own work is changing since we’re restricted from visiting many of our clients. Here are some lessons learned and things to consider:

Rethink your disaster recovery plan.

The pandemic has reframed how companies look at disaster recovery. For years, businesses focused on identifying and upfitting other large spaces to move and relaunch operations if something happened. In most cases, a disaster generally meant a natural phenomenon – a hurricane, ice storm or wildfire – that was restricted to a geographic region. Flipping the switch to near-immediate home-based operations after COVID-19 hit was relatively easy for many businesses, but most certainly didn’t expect it to last so long.

With today’s cloud-based infrastructure, many core tasks – accounting, sales and data analysis, customer service, to name a few – can be handled off site, leaving companies requiring backup only for hands-on production activities. Businesses still need action plans for moving those functions quickly to other venues, but modern technology and resources allow for rapid transformation of open space. The entire operation does not need to relocate.

Determine if workplace flexibility is an ongoing benefit.

Of course, state and local guidelines will drive when and whether your business can reopen its doors and at what capacity. With that will come internal discussions of mask-wearing and social-distancing policies, alternate scheduling, and whether and/or how many clients or vendors can visit.

Mandating that employees come back to the office probably isn’t the best approach. Granted, some people will want to come to the office, even though the experience won’t be the same as it was in early March. Some people simply need the construct of a day in the office to work at their best. Others miss the spontaneous interaction opportunities that happen only within the office environment, with many yearning to work among their peers despite the fact that it will have to be from a safe distance.   

However, some employees might want to keep working from home, even if and when the company is back to full steam and virus risks have abated. A recent Gartner survey shows that most CFOs expect at least 5% of their workforce to request permanent remote work after COVID-19. The reason might be for continued social distancing; part of it might be for work-life balance gains. Personally, in my previous role, I took mass transit 90 minutes each way to the office in New York City; working from home has given me three extra hours in my day that I can devote to my family and non-work life.

Now is the time to think about your company’s culture. You might find that your analytical talent largely works heads down, but creative souls might need the opportunity to hang out at the coffee bar to collaborate and exchange ideas. What environment do you need to foster to get the best work out of your employees? It might sound ironic, but remote employees are more productive and spend more time on the job. In a year, you get nearly an extra 17 days of work from them compared to your office-based staff.

The right solution is perhaps a bit of a compromise, as you might offer a work-from-home option as a perk for employees. Be mindful of what they need to contribute fully, and don’t disadvantage those who are capable and productive in a remote arrangement. You also need to prepare your people managers for nurturing their direct reports, particularly if you end up with a bifurcated workforce. For certain, if the pandemic has taught us nothing in the past three months, we’ve nearly all mastered digital collaboration tools.

Understand how your location might limit you.

Real estate is a big expense, as rent alone can take up to 20% of a business’s income.

In recent years, we’ve watched as industry embraced the open-concept office, with the belief that environment sparks lively ping-pongs of ideas to create the next new thing. As a New York City veteran, I can tell you a lot of that is about the cost of square footage: Take down the office walls, and you can fit a lot more desks in the same space. In less than a generation, one in seven companies have adopted this approach.

But now here come workers – wearing masks or not, carrying hand sanitizer – returning to the office with six-foot social distancing guidelines in place. Some offices are installing clear plastic dividers to contain the spread of germs. Will all of these employees return to the same open-concept workplace that fostered creativity? Probably not – at least not to the extent of the past.

At this point, think about whether continuing to encourage work-from-home options would allow you to house more people in less space (and fewer offices). Having a portion of your workforce off site could generate significant savings if you reduce your physical footprint.

Recognize that this could happen again.

Federal health officials caution that reopening too quickly could fuel additional future waves of COVID-19 cases. Right now, start preparing for the worst (again) and diversify your risk.

For most companies, that involves strengthening information security on home WiFi networks, so invest as needed to protect your data and maintain customer privacy. Do the right people have the right access to the right things? Is there enough bandwidth for everyone to get a virtual seat at the office without crashing your system? Connect them to what they need to do their jobs, and bolster your connectivity resources.

On a practical level, do any employees need to print documents from home? If appropriate, give them personal printers so they aren’t sharing sensitive data across public networks, or encourage greater adoption of digitals tools so they can work smarter – without the paper. Develop the right protocols that enable work continuity and keep your employees from skipping a beat in their day-to-day functions.

Since the immediacy of the March shutdowns has passed, use this time to thoughtfully analyze the steps you took to send employees home with their laptops and establish technical solutions for remote connectivity to virtual workstations. Even with the best-laid contingency plans, companies had to act quickly in the moment. Find and close any gaps, and you might even create a better work-from-home experience if the pandemic prompts new safer-at-home mandates.

At Spinnaker, our culture supports our people in doing their best wherever they’re working, and we’ve advised clients on how to establish effective protocols for enabling call center agents to work from home. In the pre-COVID-19 world, our people were on the road regularly, armed with their laptops and working from client locations. We’ve learned how to support our consultants to maximize their remote work – not to mention how to leverage best-in-class collaboration technology to keep everyone moving forward toward shared business goals. Looking for a few tricks of the trade? Let us help you empower your remote workforce to be just as successful.