Returning to the office after the Covid-19 Crisis
Insight from Applied Psychology and the pulse of EmployeesAuthors:
Cynthia Milota, Director, Workplace Strategy Ware Malcomb
Dr. Sally Augustin, Design with Science
As unprecedented disruption and change ripple across the business landscape due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, what are the impacts on the future state of workplace? Corporate America sending their workforces home during the shelter in place orders has tested the limits of technology and social networks. Now that employees are improvising at home, settled in for an unknown time period, employers are contemplating what’s next. There is much speculation on what the post Covid workplaces will look like, when and how employees will be asked to return, how workplaces will be operated, cleaned, managed and what new protocols will be instituted.
Employee Behavior and Organizational Outcomes
It is the investigation of the human side of employees working from home during this Covid-19 crisis that particularly intrigued the Ware Malcomb Workplace Strategy team. Since people are a business’ most important asset, how are people adapting and coping in this massive forced social experiment?
Rather than speculate, we invited a dozen clients to explore how their employees are maintaining social connections, how employee engagement is fairing and implications for the return to the office. The Ware Malcomb Workplace Strategy team worked with environmental psychologist, Dr. Sally Augustin to conduct structured interviews with select clients. The goal was to examine human behaviors while working from home and to speculate on the implications of the data collected for the return to the workplace.
Grounded in applied psychology, this study explored the implications of the Work from Home period on employee behavior and organizational outcomes. The three fundamental human needs identified by self-determination theory include competence, autonomy and relatedness. These needs were considered during the development of the research methodology and the analysis of data collected. Competence is being skilled at what one does. Autonomy is being in control of one’s actions and relatedness is the feeling of social connectedness. Self-determination theory has been a linchpin of applied psychology for several decades, and successfully utilized in a variety of settings and contexts.
Prior to the Covid-19 event, working from home was ostensibly not allowed in 9 of the 11 organizations that were interviewed. Yet, during the shelter in place period approximately 89% of the employees from the organizations in our data set were working from home. While just nine were considered essential businesses, their corporate office staff was not working on the front lines or on the production lines and were therefore instructed to work from home.
There are no more excuses that work cannot happen remotely.
The applied psychology research is clear; trust between colleagues and for the organization that employs them, is crucial to achieving corporate performance goals. In the groups we spoke with, there was ample trust among employees working from home. The work is somehow getting done despite the fact that middle managers are not able to electronically look over their employee’s shoulders. The paradigm of if I cannot see them, they are not working, is being shattered. This is trust in action. Employees remain intentional and present. They feel motivated and empowered to do a good job and they anticipate new opportunities for alternative work when the Covid crisis is over.
There is a new sense of transparency in the massive amount of communications across multiple channels. Levels of communications include: 1) organization to employees on personal, mental, financial and company health; 2) team-to-team; and 3) manager-to-employee.
Corporate communications are broadcast often weekly and sometimes daily from the companies we interviewed. All anticipate that this increased level of trust building communications will continue until people are regularly back at the office.
Having your camera on is the new de rigueur.
The first week of working from home, many logged in while still in their PJ’s. But that quickly gave way to shaving, blow drying and make-up. No one has been to the salon in weeks, so all in good company. People crave personal connections professionally and personally. Zoom™, Teams™, text and phone dominated the technology of choice for people to connect. The first week’s virtual happy hours are giving way to virtual book clubs, cooking demonstrations and live stream concerts. There is the desire for more content and meaning in these virtual links. While everyone was ready to go back to work after the first week, people are generally making the best of their situation.
The drive for connectedness makes sense to Dr. Augustine. Bonding with others and maintaining our interpersonal bonds is fundamental to who we are as human beings.
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Employees learned to work remotely in different ways, each evolving their work style over time. Everything from selecting a pleasing virtual Zoom™ background to working the call center phones to working the curb side delivery for a shift, people are being positive and figuring it out. Extraordinary individual and team contributions during this crisis are being recognized by measures culturally appropriate for each organization.
Work / life integration was reported to have a flip side, as employees reported enjoying dinner times with the family, but then returning to work after the kids were in bed. Additional positive wellness impacts included walks at lunch and healthier eating.
This striving by employees to learn new skills and develop new ways of working that support their professional performance also didn’t surprise Augustine. Our drive to be good at our work is another powerful driver for humans.
While there were many comments about not being able to stop by someone’s desk at the office, respondents also acknowledged that while working from home there was a good chance that the person, they were looking for would be at their desk at home. Teams and their managers are more intentional about touch points and are organically breaking down corporate silos. There’s a strong measure of organizational bonding when the CEO is broadcasting the daily report from their kitchen creating a more intimate connection with their teams. Augustin noted that the Covid-19 pandemic may tighten some bonds between employees who, to a great extent, feel united in an important endeavor -survival.
Patience and the Softer Side
The work from home picture is not completely rosy, with kids and pets in the background, technology challenges or a view of dirty laundry baskets from your camera. The need to apologize or try to hide the mayhem happening in the background has diminished. Not all home offices are created equal and the fight for the dining room table comes with the use of the least ergonomically sound chairs in the house. Patience is requested and granted. People genuinely care and seem more willing to “cut someone some slack” at this time. This shared experience is building new levels of bonding and co-operation.
The office as we knew it, will be like clothes in your closet from another era, that just don’t fit.
When we finally Return
Returning to a certifiably clean workplace was the overwhelming most important factor in the eventual return to the office. Health and hygiene will be of paramount concern, with employees asking how they can be certain that the workplace is adequately cleaned and what protocols will be in place to assure that they will not be exposed to the virus in the future. New procedures for allowing visitor, vendors and contractors to enter workplaces will be demanded. Tech and desk sharing practices will need to be re-vamped along with work and collaboration seat densities. Interior air quality monitoring will take on new importance. While the return to the office will likely occur in phases, using technology infrastructure systems to allow access, employees will be emboldened to push back on returning until they feel it is safe to do so. Trust will be as important for an effective return to the workplace as it has been to organizational survival during this forced Covid-19 work from home period.
Evolve into Savings
So, will this unintended work from home experiment yield any corporate real estate savings, is the question everyone is pondering. Most of the clients in this study did not see it as a revolution, but even a few percentage points will impact the balance sheet. Universally, it appears as if employees will be moved back into the office in waves, before some numbers of them are potentially re-released to return to work from home in the future. No companies in this study intended to have employees work entirely remote, with most suggesting a 1-3 day per week time frame. Intricacies of seat-sharing or unassigned desking will impact the square footage requirements, but all roads lead to some eventual savings.
In NYC after 9-11, it became culturally acceptable to work from home, maybe that will happen for the rest of the country after Covid-19.
Taste of freedom & Flexibility
These past few weeks have shown that it is possible to have almost all corporate roles function outside the office. How optimized or efficient those roles are and the impacts on the business, is yet to be determined. Employees have been given an extraordinary amount of control over the way they work. Humans flourish when they have some control over their workplace experiences, but repercussions of this work from home autonomy will be an open question to investigate when employees return to the office.
The organization and its’ people are being changed, as we speak, by this work from home experiment. The results of which cannot yet be known.
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