When Will Employees Come Back to the Office? And Should They?
Most of Big Y’s 11,000 employees — those who stock shelves, prepare food, work the cashier lines, and do any number of other tasks — must do their jobs on site, in a specific location. But at Big Y’s 300-employee-strong customer-support center in Springfield, which supports those frontline workers, about 70% of them have worked remotely since the start of the pandemic.
“This past year, we learned that remote work can work, and it allows for a lot of flexibility for individuals,” said Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services at the supermarket chain. “That being said, we’re a company where we stress collaboration and teamwork, and that has definitely been a challenge at times. Meetings using technology are different than having in-person meetings. It definitely can work, but there are pros and cons to it.”
The company’s pandemic response team was quick to set up safety protocols last spring to protect the thousands of customer-facing, frontline employees, but it also set many employees up with the necessary technology to work from home, put together a best-practices guide for working remotely, and has carefully followed the public-health data to determine when to bring them back.
“As time has gone on, they’ve seen the productivity; they see that the work is getting done, customers are being served, and people are happy. Now they’re saying, ‘maybe we don’t need to have everyone in.”
One important finding? Productivity never flagged — which tracks with accounts from many other area employers over the past 12 months. Thus, many employers feel no rush to bring everyone back before the pandemic is in the rear view — and that poses a question no one expected last March: does every employee really have to come back? And what if they don’t want to?
Most employers last March thought shutdowns would last a couple months. But a year later, millions of workers are still working from home — and the result has been a national experiment with remote work that has borne some surprising data.
“It’s striking — we’re seeing a little bit of everything,” said Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. “We have a number of companies — like manufacturers — that never shut down and had employees come in the whole time. And we have companies starting to have employees coming back on a sporadic basis — maybe not five days a week, but two or three days a week. Then others have said, ‘we aren’t even thinking about having employees back until later in the year.’”
One reason for that hesitancy is the fact that workers have not only adapted to remote work, but have, in most cases, been as productive as they were in the office. So employers are taking their time bringing them back, looking to state guidance and public-health metrics to guide decisions.
“As time has gone on, they’ve seen the productivity; they see that the work is getting done, customers are being served, and people are happy,” Wise said. “Now they’re saying, ‘maybe we don’t need to have everyone in.’”
UMassFive College Federal Credit Union is one example of that phenomenon.
“We moved about 60% of our workforce home last spring, and it continues to be that way,” said Craig Boivin, vice president of Marketing. “We’re developing plans and processes for what this will look like in the post-pandemic world, but we’re not looking to bring people back until the state says it’s safe for large groups to gather indoors.”
During the exodus from office to home last March, he recalled, “I won’t say it was chaotic, but we had to make a lot of quick decisions at the senior level to make sure everyone had the equipment and support they needed at home,” in addition to developing guidelines to ensure accountability and making sure everyone understood new (to them, anyway) communication tools like Zoom and Slack.
“We found there are some real positives with productivity and being able to shut off some of the distractions,” he went on.
Employees — especially those who have grown to appreciate working from home, and even prefer it — are thinking similar thoughts, and that may pose a problem of pushback at some companies when they try to bring their teams back in. For now, in most cases, there’s no rush, but those days won’t last forever.
The same story is playing out nationally, with some companies planning to remain 100% remote post-pandemic, while others — including big names like Microsoft — taking a hybrid approach, giving workers more flexibility about where they work. Other companies are clamoring to bring everyone back.
“I see a hybrid approach in the future, finding balance, again, between meeting the needs of the business and allowing people flexibility to take care of their home life.”
“It’s no longer, ‘do you offer remote work?’ but, ‘do you offer it with enough organizational support so I can be as successful as the people who work in the office?’” Andrew Hewitt, senior analyst at market research firm Forrester, told CNN recently. He expects about 60% of companies will offer a hybrid work model, while 30% of companies will be back in the office, and 10% will be fully remote.
Since last summer, Big Y’s support-center workers have been required to be on site at least one day a week, and the company continues to discuss internally what the full transition back will look like.
“Productivity has not been an issue,” Galat said. “But, with our company, the culture is a huge component of it. Collaborating and having discussions on Zoom … you can do that, but it’s not the same.”
By essentially being forced into a mode of flexibility since last March, he believes companies — including Big Y — have learned some important lessons going forward. “I see a hybrid approach in the future, finding balance, again, between meeting the needs of the business and allowing people flexibility to take care of their home life. It’s a constant discussion we’re having with the executive team about what’s working, what’s not working, and what this will look like in the future.”
The fact that the support center is not just an 8-to-5 operation, but requires coverage on nights and weekends, allows for some flexibility of schedules for workers juggling their kids’ remote learning or taking care of parents, he added. “We continue to take care of business, while allowing people the flexibility to take care of home needs as well.”
Another of the region’s largest employers, MassMutual, continues to keep a large swath of workers off campus, and is in the process of evaluating their return to the office, said Chelsea Haraty, communications consultant in Media Relations for the company.
“At a high level, we expect to have MassMutual employees return to our corporate offices in a slow, phased manner later this year,” she told BusinessWest. “We will continue to monitor and reassess that plan, factoring in a number of considerations — including guidance from medical experts and government officials, a sustained reduction in cases, broader availability of testing and vaccines, as well as our employees’ circumstances and comfort in returning.”
What employers are starting to understand, Wise said, is that employees are also weighing the pros and cons of coming back, and while some are eager, others would rather stay home, and may make that fact known.
“Employers have employees all over the spectrum — some want to get back into the office and don’t feel part of the team when they’re not. Others are saying, ‘I’m not sure I want to come back; I’m not sure about the cleaning protocols and sanitation protocols. Are people wearing masks? I’m not sure I’m comfortable in the office.’”
She noted that some companies are fine pushing those decisions into the future. “They’re saying, ‘things are going pretty smoothly; we don’t have quite as much water-cooler talk, not as much gossip going on, and people are really productive when they’re remote. We don’t have to have people come back to the office and incur the expense of coffee and bathroom supplies. Maybe we can cut some of our expenses.’”
Including some major expenses — most notably the office space itself. “Some of these companies have leases coming up in the next year, so they’re asking, ‘can I reduce my footprint? Do we need as much space as we have?’”
Back and Forth
On the other hand, Wise said, questions about workplace culture are very real. “Some companies are looking at their culture, their camaraderie, their teamwork, just the ability to walk down the hall and talk to somebody, and they want to get all their employees back in the office as soon as they can.”
She noted the importance of age-old rituals of the workplace, walking in the door at the start of the day and asking co-workers about their weekend, or their family, or whatever might be going on, whether it’s related to their jobs or not.
“How do you incorporate new personnel into the culture outside of the physical environment? That’s a big challenge.”
“When people are removed from an environment that really is a team, where you’ve gotten to know each other’s family situations and personal life, you really do lose that with a remote connection,” she said. “When people come into an office meeting, they sit down and chit-chat with the person next to them a little. It’s hard to recreate that on a Zoom meeting; you lose some of that personal connection.”
Boivin agreed. “The productivity piece seems to be working out pretty solidly now,” he told BusinessWest. “At the same time, the collaborative, in-person aspect is missed.”
One big topic of conversation is new-employee onboarding, he said, noting that orientation is conducted in person, and video communications are a regular reality, but he wonders if that’s enough to keep them engaged.
“I have a new graphic designer in the Marketing department who started at the end of August. She’s been [physically] at UMassFive for just a day or two. How do you incorporate new personnel into the culture outside of the physical environment? That’s a big challenge.”
Also challenging is the way boundaries between work and personal life have blurred, whether it’s juggling job responsibilities with helping kids with remote schoolwork, or simply working too many hours.
“Productivity is up,” Wise said, “but some of it is putting in longer hours — rolling out of bed, having breakfast, and getting right to work instead of commuting, and then at 5, instead of getting in the car and driving home to fix dinner, they keep working. Something we’ve heard is that people need to build in some transition time so they don’t start working at 7 and quit at 6.”
Whatever the reason, many employees will be more than happy to return to the pre-pandemic work world.
“Now that we’re going on a year, a lot of people are saying, ‘I thought I wanted this, but I really want to be back in the office — maybe not five days a week for 52 weeks a year, but maybe in the office three days and at home two days,” she added. “A lot of employees are saying, ‘this isn’t what I thought it was going to be — I need to be back around people; I need to have boundaries by being back in the office.’”
Each industry is different, too, Wise added. For example, companies where creativity is crucial, like marketing firms, probably find it easier to brainstorm when people are together in one physical space, able to immediately bounce ideas off one another.
“I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all answer that’s going to fit every organization,” she said. “My guess would be a lot of manufacturers, since they have individuals on the floor who have to be at work, are going to be less likely to have their office staff remain totally remote because that creates an us-and-them mentality. But some other organizations will allow many people to stay totally remote, or there may be that hybrid of people working in the office and then from home.”
Galat agreed, adding that that he’s heard of some companies staying fully remote, but most seem to be moving toward a hybrid approach — which speaks to one way COVID-19 may have permanently altered the American workplace.
“We’ve learned a lot through the year,” he said. “We miss that component of teamwork and collaboration; not having that makes it more challenging. But I think the hybrid approach might be the approach we look at going forward. We’ll evaluate and fine-tune it as we go.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]