Coronavirus (Covid-19) and the workplace: What will it be like going back to the office?

Filed Under: Costs, Patients, Providers

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With the vaccine for coronavirus having arrived, managers are thinking more seriously about a return to the workplace. I had an interesting conversation with Cali Yost, CEO and founder of the Flex Strategy Group, which Cali describes as “a solutions company that helps leaders reimagine how, when and where work is done, and then make that vision a reality.”

Here is our conversation about the workplace of the future, edited for brevity and clarity.

Jeanne Pinder 

In light of the pandemic, what does the new workplace look like?

Cali Yost 

There’s a “now” and a “next” phase to the workplace. Right now, there’s probably a lot more disruption in the way work is done than anybody could ever imagine would be the case before Covid. A high percentage of employees are remote-working for the first time. For those who are not able to remote-work, there is a redesigned workspace that has social distancing, and there are protocols they have to maintain — a lot of change has happened. That is fundamentally changing the DNA of work long-term.

That brings us to the “next.” Once the vaccine starts to be distributed, that is going to support a slow recalibration back into an office environment. But it’s not going to happen overnight. There will be a period of time where slowly you can bring people back into a workspace, but there will still be masks, probably there will still be social distancing. A lot of people will find that there will be certain tasks that that will accommodate effectively, but there will be other tasks, they’ll still find it’s just easier and more comfortable to do them remotely. And that ultimately will lead to what will be officially a hybrid on site and remote reality. You will never get everybody wanting to come back to the workplace every day,

Studies consistently are finding between 65 and 75% of employees say they want to come back to the office on average two to three days a week. That is unbelievably consistent.

In our clients, the percentage that want to work full time remote is maybe 15 or 10%. And you’ve got that remaining percentage that just don’t want to work remotely and want to come in every day. But truly the majority, it’s going to be that dynamic hybrid reality, once we are beyond Covid.

Work is what we do, not where we go

JP 

Can you unpack that for me a little bit?

CY 

What we are seeing is that work is now what we do, not necessarily where we go.

It’s going to be very job specific — depending upon what your job is and how you execute certain priorities. A group may decide “the way we work on this particular task is more effective if we are all physically together.” And when that task needs to be completed, a group will decide we’ll we’re going to get together in the physical workspace.

But there could be other tasks, let’s say independent focus work, where it really just doesn’t matter if you’re on site.

Work is going to be a what, and it’s going to be much more about “how, when and where do we do it best,” and not just the default that “work is where we go.”

JP

I think about a former employer of mine, a large news organization, where there were people who were doing various kinds of tasks, like moving around large rolls of paper to attach them to the press, or thinking about a strategic plan at three o’clock in the morning in their underwear in their apartment, and how those different kinds of tasks really did actually talk about where and when and how the work is done.

CY 

Right! Let’s use the example of administrative assistants.  I have worked with administrative assistants who’ve done two things. One, they’ve determined what parts of their job do require them to be on site. And oftentimes that will be meeting somebody and in the waiting room and setting up a meeting. But a lot of their tasks now really can be done remotely — even sending copies from their computer to the copy machine, but they need somebody willing to pick up the copy from the copy machine.

They’ll coordinate with each other, let’s say they just want to work remotely one day a week, and they will coordinate with each other so that there’s coverage. The day that I’m working remotely, and you are in the office, then you will cover for me and meet people in the lobby.

The same thing with time, which is also very interesting. we spent a lot of our focus on remote work where it’s happening, but there’s also time flexibility. I’ve seen administrative assistants coordinate with each other where they shift their time. Some are in earlier, some come in later and leave later. And that actually extends the amount of administrative coverage for the broader staff at no extra overtime. They’re creative about where and how they’re doing their unique job in the context of a flexible work culture.

Your ass in the chair? Maybe not

JP 

So it’s kind of a bottom-up definition of when and where rather than a top-down “your ass has to be in the chair”?

CY 

It’s a culture of high-performance flexibility, where there’s a consistent framework of planning, and coordination and execution. Everybody’s thinking about it the same way. In terms of how that is executed, it is going to be determined by what you’re trying to do and how, when and where it’s done best, based on your particular job or particular department. And it’s not one size fits all.

JP 

What about the argument that some of this is going to go away? Like, this is just a temporary Covid- induced interlude?

CY 

Well, the truth is, this has been happening for quite some time, and all Covid did was just accelerate trends that were already well underway.

What I say to leaders who think this is just a weird interlude:  Really the ship has sailed. People were already working flexibly, in many cases, it was just super organic and random. There was no strategic approach around it. But this is where we were going. And this is only just gotten us there faster.

To think that now after Covid, we’re going to turn around and go back, it’s just not realistic. Now, that being said, the research is showing people still want to get together, they still want to be on site with each other, most people on average two to three days a week.

So really what leaders should be thinking about is, how are we going to use those two or three days, if there are certain things that really are better when we’re together? How do we intentionally put the process in place to plan for that, and leverage that time together and then allow for work that maybe doesn’t require us to all be in the same place in space? The technology adoption that has happened over these past 10 months has been dramatic. It’s a different kind of digitally enabled workplace — all those same digital tools and those ways of coordinating will come with you into that hybrid remote-on site reality.

What must be done face to face?

JP 

Like what tasks for example, what things would be best done that face to face?

CY 

You know, it’s funny, it’s really depends on each job. People will often choose when they are on site to plan specific meetings with people. If I want to actually meet with a client or a customer or a colleague who I support in that physical environment, I will make my meetings with those people on those days. And we will coordinate that in advance. If we’re having a strategic planning meeting or a meeting where we’re coming up with something new, where there’s more brainstorming, maybe those meetings are happening when you’re on site and in person.

It really does depend on what the group decides is optimal.

Whenever your senior leader wants to have a meeting, oftentimes people would like to be there in person, and the senior leader will often like to see people and interact with people, that could be a task that people decide is better served together. It’s going to be interesting to see what people choose to accomplish in a physical environment together, and what they choose to continue to coordinate more virtually.

JP 

There are some leaders who feel that they don’t really understand how to do performance management — like “if I can see her ass is in the chair, I know she’s working.”

CY 

We all have to be honest with each other. I think the dirty little secret going into Covid is that we were not measuring output. Before Covid, when I would go into an organization and start to execute a flexible work culture shift, managers would sidle up to me and say, “How am I going to know they’re working?” They would literally be panicked.

And my answer was always the same: “Well, how do you do it now? It should be no different.”

And you could tell: The blank stare, I mean, they really did not have any sense of what mattered, what were they measuring. And that was one of the magic outcomes of intentionally allowing people to have greater flexibility. You did have to start to define that. It allows managers to let go of the wheel and just know, O.K., if we’re being clear about priorities, I’m getting updates, we have that cadence in place, people are coordinating. They know we’ll recalibrate if things aren’t getting done. It does allow for a lot more freedom and innovation to determine how, when and where work is done best.

‘Prices and payoffs’: What’s worth the effort

JP 

Right. You know, we encountered a lot of that pushback.

CY 

Well, it requires an extra level of effort, right? There was an article in The Economist, actually, that just was forwarded to me. But it’s about you know, “I’m a manager, it’s more work”. So here’s the thing, when you execute a culture shift, one of the exercises you should go through with all your leaders at all levels is the “prices and payoffs” exercise.  They have to define for themselves, what are the prices I have to pay, but what are my payoffs? So that they see this is worth their effort.

Yeah, there are prices, you’re going to have to be more planful, about what your people have to get done, you do need to be clear about what you’re measuring. You do have to communicate more effectively. All those things have to happen. But you get the whole laundry list on the other side, of the benefits.

You get more engaged employees, more productivity. You expand your reach in terms of talent, and on and on and on. And it’s worth it. But it’s something you should have been doing anyway.

JP 

Can you tell me a little bit about an anecdote or two about employers who get it and who don’t get it, without betraying any confidences or without naming any names?

CY 

I’ll do pre-Covid, post-Covid and what I’m seeing.

Employers who got it pre-Covid, and now that we’re in Covid, they understand that the trends are moving toward greater flexibility, and they need to jump on board — that we’re not going back.

For them, they see this as a moment they can leverage in order to recreate their workplace and position themselves to be stronger and better going forward. There’s an awareness on the part of leadership, there are many trends that are making this a strategic imperative. Pre-Covid, they voluntarily made the change happen. And they’re actually ready. When the pandemic happened, I got lots of emails, “Wow, that was not so bad.”

Leaders who are not getting it? Honestly, they just don’t want to do things differently. They just think they can go back. And I just think that’s unrealistic, ultimately.

Bridging the divide

JP 

When you talk about this, it’s it feels sometimes like you have employers and employees on opposite sides of a great divide. Like how do you bridge that divide? its employees often don’t feel like they’re empowered to do it. Employers may be trepidatious about doing it. And sometimes that divide just sits there in the middle.

CY 

In execution of a flexible work culture, you have to have the infrastructure. You have to have defined what the workspace guardrails are, what the technology supports are, what the processes that are going to support, that new way of working, get all that lined up.

But you also have to have this culture of shared leadership that leverages all of that. And that’s what’s often missing in terms of execution. That’s what bridges the gap. Yes, managers and leaders set the tone, they allow the change to happen, they support it, they encourage it. But really, it’s a partnership between individual employees, teams and managers.

Individual employees need to play their role in this, they need to have the skills and tools. People need to be trained how to be successful in a flexible work culture, they need to know how to be intentional about what they’re doing, how to think through how when and where they’re going to do their tasks best. And then they have to be trained along with the rest of their team to coordinate with each other, as their manager is setting clear priorities and recalibrating as the work changes and coordinating with them.

It’s all working together as a whole. What ultimately activates this new culture is employees, teams and managers working together to determine, what are your priorities? And then how, when, and where are they done best for our team?

JP 

When I was doing this kind of work at my previous workplace, we had a proposal-based process that came from the employee up to the manager: This is how I have been doing my work, where and when, and these are my internal and external customers. These are the tools that I need. And this is how I plan to do my work in the future, when, where and how. This is how I’m going to be servicing my customers internally and externally. This is what I need to be successful.

CY 

Think about it this way. There’s the day-to-day. And then there’s the formal reset, the   small shifts and how when and where you’re working. That’s where most people live most of the time, and you need to train people to do that.

What you’re describing is a really effective reset process where somebody may have to formally change how, when and where they’re working. Some people are going to have to do that. Some groups may decide that there’s going to be a formal element to how and where they’re working, but then also there will be that informal element. So there’s a whole continuum. For some groups, people are happy just to sort of figure out where and when and how they’re working based upon what they’re trying to achieve at any given time. Then there are the groups that will have an official policy: You’re going to work remotely these days, I’m going to work remotely these days.

Around that, we’re all going to have the informality about what we’re going to do, when and how and where. There are groups who just don’t have a lot of flexibility. So anything they do has to be formal. It depends on what type of work a particular group does and what that person needs. It’s got to be all of that continuum.

Hopefully, organizations will train people in the skills to do that day-to-day stuff, which everybody’s going to do. But also, when there is a decision for a more formal shift, people know how to do that as well. It needs to be part of the next-stage execution — it needs to be more intentional.

That’s why you see a lot of moms leaving the workplace. That kind of work may be possible, but nobody knows about it. Nobody’s been trained to do it.  And that’s what needs to change.

O.K., how about the bottom line?

JP 

Talk a little about how this affects a company’s bottom line.

CY 

It’s become a core strategy for operating resilience versus something that used to sit over there. That was nice-to-have in case a mom had to quit, right? Or that annoying millennial just doesn’t want to work hard? That’s what it was pre-Covid.

Now, it’s how do we stay in business?

Now, it’s a core operating strategy. The next stage is, how do you integrate that into the other parts of your operation?

JP  

There are some bottom line elements here, like retention or real estate costs, for example

CY 

I can give them all to you, Jeanne.

First of all, I have H.R. leaders and talent leaders telling me, the first question they’re getting from potential hires now — men, women, all ages, it doesn’t matter — “How many days am I going to be expected to come into the office?” That’s what they want to know.

Or you get people who say: “If you want me to take this job, I am not moving. I will travel to you whenever we feel we need that, but I am not moving.”

That’s a shift. So now it’s about just attracting talent, because your competitors are going to take this moment and shift the way they’re operating, and they will beat you

So — attracting talent, retaining talent, engaging talent. You may have people stay with you. But if you force them to come in, when they don’t need to, they will be not engaged.

Look at productivity. People are showing they are as productive, if not more productive, when they have the opportunity to work remotely. They don’t want to work remotely all the time.

And [diversity, equity, inclusion] innovation: People are thinking more creatively about how to reach customers. Honestly, there’s really no downside, as long as it’s implemented correctly, and that’s the next stage. How do you do this? How do you execute a dynamic hybrid onsite-remote reality?

Diversity, equity and inclusion

JP 

You mentioned D.E.I. Can you unpack that?

CY 

Until recently the E  part of the D.E.I. was not there. It was about representation.

Now it’s truly about equal experience when you’re in the workplace. We’re seeing with Covid that moms — parents — are taking a real hit with Covid. They just don’t have child care. And so in terms of an equitable, diverse, inclusive experience for your workforce, that has to be accounted for — how do you use flexibility to help people in that particular situation right now?

We’re also learning that for people of color, there are issues related to flexibility that are unique to them. And we have to acknowledge that in many cases, sometimes they have extra levels of caregiving that require an extra degree of support.

There are some concerns around the boundaries that might be breached with remote work. People of color have always had different expectations around how much of their life they’re bringing into the workplace. Some are feeling they don’t have that opportunity to manage that boundary anymore.

People with different work styles — introverts and extroverts. For introverts, the video conferencing all the time is brutal. There’s got to be more openness to what form of communication works for me, and what doesn’t.

I think that carries over into the post-Covid workplace, as well

JP 

Let’s talk about some other things about the post-Covid workplace in the bottom line: Real estate costs, office furniture?

CY 

About real estate: Again, most people say they want to come in at least two to three days a week. So to get rid of all your work real estate is probably not a good move, as much as it might be really attractive. In terms of bottom line, I think you’ll be sorry you did that.

But you’re definitely not going to need the same amount.

You should learn from your workforce: What tasks are people thinking they are going to want to accomplish on site? Start to reconfigure your workspace to support that. I think it’s going to be a lot more convening, some in-person meetings. And also wanting some private space, not necessarily these big, open floors where you know, people are exposed to each other.

In terms of technology, making sure people not only have the right technology when they’re working remotely, to make that seamless, but then also supporting the technology on site to make some of those convenings effective with the people who are on site, and even those who are not.

I don’t think there’s going to be as much business travel. I think that’s going to be reduced  — estimates are between 30% and 15% less business travel, so that saves money. And maybe that becomes a stipend to get people geared up the way they need to be to be effective.

Cutting real estate?

JP 

Wait, so if you go back to real estate for just a second, if you have two days a week, when you want everybody on campus, then you’re not cutting your real estate at all.

CY 

Well, that’s where the coordination has to happen. You know, I think that’s where the organization has to say, “Is there something where we would need every single person here?”

Most times, the way this is rolled out is this: Groups get a neighborhood. Like you, your group, your team is assigned a neighborhood or a section of a workspace. And you decide, based upon your teams, the way they want to work, how you want to organize within that neighborhood.

You may decide if everybody wants to be in on a particular day, so maybe you will have a hoteling space that people can be part of one, and it’s safe. Granted now this is assuming we’re in the post-Covid world where it’s safe to be together. But that’s enough space that people can drop down with their laptop. But for the most part, most days, you have enough desks and enough convening spaces for the people who choose to be on site. And for the people who don’t, then they’re working remotely.

JP 

How does this affect things like office supplies, food, housekeeping – all the things that are attached to the workplace writ large?

CY 

I actually have this vision of ultimately where this is going.

I know cities are worried that if you have people coming in only two to three days a week that it’s going to, be bad for cities. But I see it a different way.

First of all, young people do not want to live in the suburbs. So you’re going to have all the young people wanting to get back into a city. And if you want to hire a young person — and that’s just one element of it — but organizations are still going to want   a presence in metropolitan areas. And I think it will open up opportunities for more organizations to be in those environments.

I don’t have as dire of vision for the support industries, because I think when you’re in, you’re going to want to meet your friends, you’re going to want to do this, I don’t know, I don’t think it’s going to be as bad.

There’ll be a period of transition, but I do ultimately think it’ll revive. But like cleaning, I ultimately think we’re going to need more. I think the bar for workspace cleaning and maintenance is going to be a lot higher.

One person was telling me they think you’re going to have to have a sticker on your desk every day when you come in, that says, “This desk has been cleaned.”

All of that is going to reorganize itself. But it has to be intentional. This is the part of it that really frustrates me is the lack of vision, driving all this.

I wish instead of reading articles every day about another corporate landlord trying to force everybody back in the way it was, I just wish I heard all of the corporate real estate companies are getting together and sitting down with the organizations that are their tenants, and rethinking how people are going to work – re-doing workspaces. That would make people so excited. And it would get them really fired up about, “The days I’m going to go back in, this is what I’m going to do.” That’s what I wish I saw more of, but we’re not doing that. It’s a lost opportunity.

Women leaving the workplace

JP 

Let’s talk a little more about women in the workplace. We’ve heard that women are leaving the workplace or staying home in much greater numbers than they were. It has to do with school. It has to do with childcare. It has to do with “Was I really that happy with my job in the first place? Do I have to work because I’m a woman who’s the sole breadwinner because more families with women are as a sole breadwinner, or the primary breadwinner?” Where does it all go?

CY 

This goes back to what you said before, which is, I can tell you the number of employees and managers who said, “I didn’t know we had that flexibility — that somebody could put together a plan.”

And H.R. is like, “Well, we have it. We’re telling managers.”

But that’s not enough culturally. This now has to be how you operate. When there is a shift in your realities, you’re trained to know how to come up with a plan, your manager then understands how to negotiate with you, and then you understand how to put it in place with the rest of the team.

Managers are not sure that they can do anything different. So they let people walk out the door. And employees don’t know that when things are difficult, and they have to change things — that they can think through what that could look like and present a plan.

My hope is with all of these valuable women walking out the door, never having said anything, not feeling like they have managers who know how to have those conversations, not understanding teams not understanding how to coordinate with each other.

My hope is that we learn our lesson and take the steps to actually put that in place. So this does not happen again, because it is a huge loss, and actually will impact an organization’s ability to recover. The part that just drives me crazy is that it did not have to happen this way.

I hope that we learn our lesson and on the other side of this, women come back into the workforce and leaders are motivated to make sure people know that this does not have to happen next time.

JP

What’s next?

CY 

We’re very much in the now right now. But I do hope that as vaccines start to roll out, we can begin to imagine together what is going to be on the other side, and start to get excited about that, and start to see all the good things that can come from leveraging this moment in this experience to create something even better. And that’s what I hope we begin to do.

I truly believe it’s possible. I know this because of all the work I did with organizations that voluntarily made this shift pre-Covid.

I saw what happened: the level of performance and engagement and well-being and happiness that can come on the other side is real.

But now we have to intentionally decide how we’re going to leverage this experience and make that happen, not just kind of fumble our way into the next thing — because it can be good, but we have to be really thoughtful about it.

Looking for the rainbows

JP 

With the state of the economy and with every single industry going through, you know, complete change — I think it’s very hard to kind of look on the horizon and see the rainbows.

CY 

There’s a lot of good stuff that we did in this moment that you may want to continue. But how do you marry it with the things that we used to do?

Take your point on restaurants.  There’s going to be in-restaurant dining again, but when are you going to still do take-out? Gyms — people will go back to gyms, but you may want to continue some of your online classes, because that gives you more access to more people. Retail: what part of it is going to be in person, but what parties still want to do curbside pickup.

I think part of what holds us back that is not understanding how to execute something like that —  what does that look like in terms of managing that day to day. But I do think it could also help organizations think about “do I want layoffs or do I want to just reorganize how my people are working toward that new goal?”

That’s what I that’s why I hope we start to do that because I think it’ll take care of some of this like, you know, reactive, really tough stuff that is real, but there is we will get to the other side of this

JP

We thought about this after September 11. Being here in New York, you know, all of a sudden, all of these people who could never work from home were like, “I’m not going in.”  And everybody had carte blanche to work whenever they were whenever and wherever they could. We wondered at the time, how much of that was going to stick?

CY 

Three things are different this time. One, the technology’s different, much more advanced.

Two, you’ve got a whole generation that is now very quickly becoming the largest part of the workforce, who before Covid would take me aside and say, “Why am I here every day? This is ridiculous.” Young people were already like, “This is this does not make any sense.”

Now, they are not coming back. In fact, you have an entire generation of college students who have gone to school remotely, and you now think they’re coming in? They may tolerate it to get your job, but ultimately, they will leave. And if somebody else is going to give them flexibility, they will go.

The third thing: It’s been global. It’s everybody. There’s not just one sector. It’s a collective change. Whereas before, if you were that New York City that changed things, well, everybody else had not changed. But now — It’s everybody, everywhere.

What employees are saying

JP

What have we not talked about?

CY 

One thing we didn’t talk about is what we’re hearing from employees about when they want to return. And it’s interesting. Consistently a majority says, “We’re not really comfortable coming back in until there is a vaccine and it’s broadly distributed, or there is a treatment that is widely distributed.”

This is what has to be different. It was already happening. But it was random. And it was organic. But it doesn’t need a policy – it just needs a framework, a culture-based framework of approaching work as what do we need to do? And how, when and where do we do it best?

Also that everybody is approaching it the same way — there’s a consistency in the process. It’s not a one size fits all rule that everybody fits in, but you’re approaching it the same way.

And that’s the strategy around it that makes it less random – there’s a process around it, a framework.