When we talked to CFOs about their plans for a post-pandemic workplace for our October 2020 story, “Is Remote Work Working?” two messages came through loud and clear.
First, CFOs told us that telework would permanently expand to more positions than before March 2020, when companies abruptly sent employees home to work remotely.
Second, they discovered that even six months into the global pandemic, the “end” seemed so far into the future that it was difficult to assess when non-essential staff would be able to work together in person again.
Where do things stand now, six months later?
While some companies had hoped to welcome a partial workforce back to offices in the first quarter of 2021, that, for the most part, hasn’t happened. In-person staffing at the offices of global accounting software provider Xero in New Zealand and Australia has returned to pre-pandemic levels. However, according to CFO Kirsty Godfrey-Billy, employees in the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom are still working remotely full-time. In contrast, offices in Asia and South Africa are open at 50% to 75% capacity.
Global cybersecurity company Ping Identity isn’t in a hurry to bring people back. “We’re not even in the next phase of design planning or making policy decisions. It’s really important that we get this right, and it’s why we’re not just ripping the Band-Aid off,” says CFO Raj Dani.
In Vancouver, B.C., Barb Harwood, CFO at content production studio Thunderbird Entertainment Group, notes that Canada lags behind the U.S. in vaccinations. “Right now, it’s more about staying the course, getting the vaccine, and making sure everyone’s healthy and well,” she says.
Increased vaccine availability, though, has encouraged many to begin planning for in-person work. “Most companies are doing some scenario planning for returning in the summer, fall, or early 2022,” says Nicole Kyle, senior director, research and advisory, at Gartner.
Consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton expects to begin testing in June “some workplace models that will integrate remote delivery with some in-person work so we can see how effective and efficient different options could be,” according to CFO Lloyd Howell.
While leaders remain comfortable with remote work productivity levels, they face some of the challenges, including work-life balances, they identified six months ago.
“A lot of people are still having difficulty setting that boundary between work and home. If you’re connected 24/7, it’s not sustainable. We’re seeing a lot of companies helping employees with that,” says Wendy Hallmark, senior director with consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal’s private equity performance improvement group. Xero, for example, encourages staffers to consider time-zone differences when scheduling meetings, especially for those who are still dealing with restrictions or lockdowns.
Another lingering challenge involves onboarding new employees and integrating them into the company culture. “When we’re onboarding, we really have to concentrate and focus on making sure the person is getting what they need to do their job. We need to be focused on being a little more present for them,” says Harwood.
Organizations continue to solicit employee input about a range of pandemic-related topics, from their satisfaction with remote work to how they feel about returning to the workplace.
Xero, which offered flexibility before the pandemic, used employee input to design expanded remote-working guidelines. “The new policy draws on what the COVID-19 period has taught us about the level of flexibility we want to maintain in the long term and prioritizes our people’s mental well-being as we take the long road back to a new normal,” says Godfrey-Billy.
Ping Identity relies on regular surveys to make sure employees have what they need. Recent feedback revealed that more than 90% felt the company provided the support and tools necessary to work remotely while balancing their personal and professional lives. Dani notes that other surveys and informal conversations have shown that returning to the workplace will need to be gradual.
Six months ago, a vaccine had yet to be approved for emergency use in the U.S. Today, while employers can’t require employees to be vaccinated before returning to the workplace; they are encouraging it. Aflac offers pandemic leave of up to two hours per vaccine dose, while Booz Allen employees can earn wellness points for reporting their vaccination or watching a COVID-19 vaccine learning session.
Still, Gartner’s Kyle says, since employers won’t necessarily know who is or isn’t vaccinated, “They have to operate as if no one is vaccinated.”
According to a Gartner survey, 48% of employees will keep working remotely at least some of the time after the pandemic, and nearly 1 in 5 will work remotely full-time. Additionally, about 66% of office workers surveyed in a recent study by Chicago-based real estate services firm JLL said they wanted to work in a hybrid model.
Insurance company Aflac, for one, is ready to embrace hybrid work. “We do anticipate a staged return to the worksite in the coming months that will include hybrid employees who will work a percentage of their time in the office and some remotely,” CFO Max Broden says, adding that division managers will determine the exact formula according to productivity and safety requirements.
Ping is viewing hybrid worksite planning as an opportunity to help employees structure how they work. “It’s about finding that healthy balance between together time and individual focus time. Take what you get from the collaborative time when you’re in the office, then use that to really focus and get things done while spending a couple of days working from home,” Dani explains.
“Most companies are looking at how they can provide that remote option and maintain the culture. Face-to-face communication is the most effective form of communication, and you do lose something by being so far apart,” says Hallmark.
Even with so much still uncertain, some leaders see exciting opportunities. Before the pandemic, Thunderbird Entertainment was struggling to make room for an expanding workforce. Remote work has changed that. As the company looks ahead to hiring more animators, it can now recruit employees “from anywhere” with far less concern about how to accommodate them, according to Harwood. “Finding capacity was like a big game of Tetris — where can we get extra space for that show? In some respects, that goes away,” she says.
Harwood is also hopeful the post-pandemic workplace may eventually spark “a kind of creative renaissance with all of our people back together again when there’s excitement and power coming from being able to see people in person.”
At Ping, Dani says the future of work is a dominant topic at the firm’s weekly CEO staff meeting. “Companies that get the future of work right will have a huge competitive advantage in their industry for the next decade or more,” he predicts.
Sandra Beckwith is a freelance business writer.