Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic three years ago, much of what we considered “normal” has changed dramatically. In “the before times” (as we call it here at SGO), it was customary to spend upwards of 27 minutes each way to work, stifling moments of road rage while sitting in what felt like never-ending traffic, risking a late arrival for a much-needed latte. Office small talk allowed extroverted employees to get their energy fix by chatting up colleagues about weekend happenings, while introverted folks longed for the niceties to end so they could recharge in solitude. Corporations spent millions on rent, utilities, office furniture, and snacks to keep break rooms stocked. We rushed through our lunch breaks, trying to find the right time to get in and out of our favorite restaurants so we could return to our workplaces within the company-allotted time for noms.
In what seemed like an instant, all of that changed. Many of us were required to work from our homes to stall the spread of the virus. We traded our commutes for morning workouts or reading time, eliminated water-cooler talk in favor of more productive Zoom meetings and Slack exchanges, or took time to incorporate rest into what used to be days packed with places to be and things to do. For some, the ability to work from home was what they needed to find the “work-life balance” we’ve been told to achieve but were never really given the tools to accomplish. Others lamented about the ability to leave the house so they could interact with people face-to-face instead of on computer screens, craving the human connection that was lacking in their living rooms. For them, working at home blurred the lines of work and reprieve, making it difficult for some to separate the two. And while the wants of those with the privilege of preference continues to be a topic of discussion, there are still folks that didn’t (and still don’t) have a choice in the matter, as their labor (and risk) was necessary to keep the rest of the world turning.
After the initial shock to our daily routines, those of us that could work in a virtual environment began to settle into new ones. Families with school-age children who were suddenly in Zoom classrooms were able to ensure there was someone at home to monitor them throughout the day (which caused some to learn that being a stay-at-home parent really wasn’t for them). And when schools re-opened, many were able to get them to and from the bus stop or daycare with ease due to “the office” being at a computer in whatever location best served them. For the 26% of Americans with disabilities or those managing complicated health conditions, working from home has been top of mind for years, as accessibility in most workplaces is lacking. And working remotely has increased workplace satisfaction for Black employees who are worried about code-switching or downplaying their racial identities in order to be perceived as “more professional” when working in person.
Now that things are returning to “normal” (which they aren’t - Miss Rona is still out here infecting the girls, but many have chosen to be like, “I don’t know her”), a lot of companies are forcing folks to return to the workplace, despite Covid-19 infection rates refusing to fall significantly and protest from folks that prefer to work from home. With gas prices still higher than they were this time last year, food costs on the rise, and wages remaining stagnant, a lot of people find it more economically advantageous to continue to work from their kitchen tables than incur infection risks, higher commuting costs, and overall disruption to what has become their way of life. Some companies have done the math as well and have become keen to the fact that the average company’s physical workspace is typically their second largest expense, even though it remains unoccupied over 77% of the time. To be fair, there are also folks (read: white men) on the other side of the issue that are more than happy to trade in their pjs for business casual attire and return to the office for a myriad of reasons, most notably to escape the isolation that working from one’s home can bring and recapture the sense of “normalcy” that was pre-defined long before many of us even considered work as a necessary occurrence (I miss those days…). While a number of women have reconsidered their relationship with work altogether as a result of the pandemic, nearly two-thirds plan to re-enter the workforce, and are seeking clear paths to career progression and flexibility from their new employers.
If there is no answer that serves everyone, what is a corporation to do? Offer people options. Start tuning in to what your team needs. Is it a hybrid option where folks come in a couple of days a week for MEANINGFUL reasons like team meetings, 1:1’s, or client introductions? Is it a fully remote option that allows those who want to remain at home the ability to do so while also opening the doors to those that want to work from the company building? Is it paying for flexible workspaces like Gather or WeWork so that people can have a place to go when they want a change of scenery or book rooms that allow multiple people to occupy the same office space? There are a variety of options available, but the key is flexibility. Without a willingness to examine what your staff truly wants and needs as we navigate new definitions of work, your company runs the risk of losing top talent and loyal employees. This doesn’t mean that experimenting with new ways of working won’t have its problems (I’m looking at you, proximity bias). What is does show, however, is your organization’s willingness to tap into the wellbeing of everyone who works there, not just the one’s that make the final decisions.