Flexible Futures: How the COVID-19 Pandemic is Altering the Workplace
by Phil Neuffer Monitor 100 2021
Working from home has become the norm for a large portion of the U.S. population over the last 16 months. As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to (hopefully) subside, companies now need to determine what the future of the workplace looks like.
Beth Campbell, Director of Recruiting, CoBank
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot of things, especially when it comes to how we interact with other people. One of the primary places those interactions took place before the pandemic was the office. But just as the pandemic forced changes in how people shop, travel and even vote, it also drastically altered how and where people work. Aside from essential services, many companies transitioned to some level of remote work last March and that setup has largely persisted.
As an example, at Bend, OR-based AP Equipment Financing, aside from a handful of essential employees, just about everyone on the staff has been working remotely since pandemic-related shutdowns took effect. Such a shift in working patterns has led to varying results across different industries, but according to Raquel O’Leary, CLFP, chief operating officer and chief people officer at AP Equipment Financing, by being digitally focused before the pandemic, the company has maintained a high level of production.
“We’re a really highly digital organization, have a lot going on in the cloud,” O’Leary says. “With the exception of people that need to print physical checks and manage titles, everyone has been really successful working remote.”
According to O’Leary, AP’s employees initially worked more in work-from-home settings, especially during the first few months of the pandemic. The team has been able to ease up since then, partially because the company has added to its staff by taking advantage of the larger pool of available talent created by remote work.
“We started hiring people that were remote,” O’Leary says. “We started hiring people that didn’t live in Bend as well because it opened up a new landscape for us.”
Onboarding Through a Screen
Bringing in new employees, regardless of their location, has been one of the primary challenges for companies during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly when it comes to onboarding and communicating a company’s cultural values.
Beth Campbell, director of recruiting at Denver-based CoBank, says the bank has hired more than 100 new employees during the course of the pandemic, all of whom have been onboarded fully remotely. Campbell says setting new employees up for success in such a situation takes a lot of pre-planning and requires leaders to remain active during the onboarding process. At CoBank, new employees participate in a two-part orientation and get assigned a “buddy” to serve as a mentor for the first 90 days. Although in-person interactions may not occur, these initiatives help new employees learn about their jobs, the people they work with and the company as a whole.
Maintaining a high level of engagement with new employees during the course of the pandemic has been an important part of Doug Petitt’s strategy at United Leasing & Finance, where he serves as executive vice president and chief people officer. According to Petitt, who says United was partially remote for the better part of nine months, engagement comes from broad and consistent communication.
“I’m not sure there’s one certain formula that works or doesn’t work, but again, it is hard and culture fit is one of the hardest things to search for and predict when hiring,” Petitt says, noting United has been able to bring more new employees into the office as restrictions have eased.
AP added roughly 30 staff members during the last 16 months. As the company has brought in new talent, it’s taken different approaches to not only display but sustain its culture. Most recently, the company restarted its culture committee after a long pause. The committee includes representatives from each department in the company and is responsible for team-building initiatives meant to spread cohesion across the organization. In the face of the pandemic, the committee has been focused on making the team feel connected virtually.
For the most part, Campbell, O’Leary and Petitt all say their organizations have hired new employees who were already familiar with working in an office environment, but internship programs have shown a need to determine the best ways to educate employees new to the corporate world. For example, in addition to providing new employees with equipment and a $400 stipend to improve their home offices, CoBank provides education courses through a learning and development platform to bring employees up to speed on Outlook, presenting during WebEx videos and more.
From the employee perspective, working from home has provided an opportunity to re-evaluate their work-life balance and that will be important to keep in mind as companies begin to bring staff back into office settings, if they choose to do so at all.
“The change to the COVID flex world has created so much more satisfaction with people’s [lives],” O’Leary says. “We have been listening to our people and we have heard loud and clear that they want to continue to maintain a healthy balance between work and life post-COVID. As a leadership team, we have made it a priority to lead by example and use our vacation leave to rest and rejuvenate while encouraging all of our staff to do the same. And I think through COVID, there was so much burnout and everyone’s priorities have shifted a bit. At AP, we have always embodied the value of working hard and always playing hard.”
Returning to the Office (or Not)
Individual organizations will employ different strategies when it comes to bringing employees back into the office as the pandemic (hopefully) wanes. At United, Petitt says “all but a handful” of employees are back to working in the office full-time.
“For the most part, folks have shown an interest in getting back into the office and having some peer-to-peer interaction,” Petitt says.
CoBank attempted to begin a voluntary return to the office last fall, but had to curtail its plans due to spikes in COVID-19 cases in Colorado. It took until April for the company to even begin considering restarting the process and returning to the office is currently voluntary for CoBank staff.
Meanwhile, at AP, employees are not being forced to come back into the office just yet, with the organization regularly polling its staff to determine the preferences of its team members. O’Leary says “including the employee in the planning process is very important” and the company’s polling has reinforced the notion that more flexibility will be needed.
A primary reason returning to the office is even an option right now is because of the rollout of vaccinations across the United States. However, Campbell, O’Leary and Petitt all said they will not require employees to be vaccinated, with Campbell and Petitt saying they also will not be asking employees for such information. At AP Financing, vaccinations will not be mandatory, but the company will only be allowing those working in essential positions or those who are fully vaccinated to return to the office.
Even with workers returning to the office, companies will likely need less space after the pandemic fully subsides, according to O’Leary. AP has paused on the full build-out of one of its floors until it sees exactly what it will need in the wake of the pandemic.
Views on the long-term effects of the pandemic on physical work spaces aren’t uniform, however, as Petitt believes there won’t be a huge change. But even he admits there will likely be lesser demand for office space, especially in larger cities.
The Future of Work
The last 16 months have shown prognosticating about the future is always difficult. Two years ago, it would have been unthinkable that a large swath of the working population in the United States would be fully remote, yet that’s just what has happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it does seem certain that even when the pandemic is long in the rear-view window, its effects on how and where people work will likely stay with us. As with everything, opinions differ on just how drastic those effects will be.
Petitt believes working conditions will not be too different than today, emphasizing the need for people to interact with one another to get the job done.
“The interpersonal relationships are just simply too important to ignore, in terms of team activities and projects,” Petitt says. “We may just see a bit more of a mixture.”
Meanwhile, O’Leary says providing flexibility will be the key to creating productive and supportive work environments going forward.
“I feel better as a leader knowing that we are going into a space where we’re going to be flexible and we’re going to have higher satisfaction from our employees because of it,” O’Leary says, noting that 80% to 90% of AP’s staff would prefer a hybrid model in the future.
Campbell also identifies flexibility as a primary driver of how workplace decisions will be made going forward, but that may just be a piece of a larger puzzle.
“I’ve been in the workforce for 35 years and this is the most profound change that we will ever see, and it will change forever the way work looks,” Campbell says.
Phil Neuffer is senior editor of Monitor. Rita E. Garwood, editor in chief of Monitor, interviewed Beth Campbell, Raquel O’Leary and Doug Petitt for this article.