When reopening offices, communication is key

In our first month, HR Brew asks the question “Where are we?” With stories that explore where we as employees and HR professionals are working physically at this point in the pandemic, as well as where we are metaphorically, as the industry grows rapidly while facing enormous challenges . Our first story, a deep dive into how “back to work” unfolds, comes from Sam Blum.

Eighteen months after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the office, one of society’s most trusted institutions, looks more like a Motorola pager than a brand new pair of AirPods.

The brilliant head office was not Assumed to follow Blockbuster Video’s path: Earlier this year, as vaccination rates rose and Covid-19 cases declined, U.S. businesses were about to open their office doors. But the emergence of the highly contagious Delta variant has forced many companies to postpone their reopenings for an unknowable future.

Now, people operations departments across the country are wondering how to get workers back into offices, while overcoming a host of hurdles in the era of the pandemic. They find the work tedious and some workers are fed up with what they see as lax safety standards and poor communication from companies trying, once again, to cube people back and the old ways of doing things. job.

To study this rapidly changing landscape, we looked at two companies at different ends of the reopening spectrum, identifying several of the pitfalls that dusting a row of cubicles can entail, as well as some of the tactics that could potentially help offices keep their lights on (without emitting weird, abandoned vibes – Chuck E. Cheese).

Philosophies that clash

“Why does this HRD … want to see people at the office again?” I think if we are to be honest about this, it is perception. He thinks that if he can’t see them then [workers] don’t do what they have to do, ”said a recruiting consultant, who asked that his name not be disclosed because he did not want to jeopardize his relationships with his clients.

The pandemic has brought to light two opposing management philosophies, the consultant said. The old guard approach maintained by some business leaders says workers must work under the watchful eye of a manager to be productive, while the majority of workers say the remote working revolution born out of a pandemic has proven exactly the opposite.

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research this year predicts that overall economic productivity will increase by 5% after the pandemic recedes, in large part due to new work configurations and the elimination of universally hated commuting. . And according to a Mercer poll that polled 800 employers last year, 90% said productivity has stayed the same or improved in a remote work format. In an anonymous survey on the Blind site, 64% of professionals said they would prefer a permanent telecommuting deal to a $ 30,000 pay raise.

Despite statistics highlighting the cause of remote work and prognoses touting its sustainability, only 13% of American workers telecommuted during the month of August in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The vast majority of American workers do not have the ability to teleport to the office; to take an example, about 26 million people worked in the US service industry alone before the pandemic, according to data compiled by Data USA. (Americans who work remotely full-time, by contrast, numbered 19.5 million in February 2020, but are expected to increase by 36.2 million people by 2025, according to UpWork research.)

But some of the workers who continue to zoom into the cloud-based boardroom are feeling the pull of their management teams, who have communicated plans to reopen offices, often iteratively and unclearly. Workers feel caught up in a tug-of-war between opposing management styles.

“I think there is this push from managers who want to be a little more in control. Who want to have a more dominant feeling about their employees, ”said a PayPal employee familiar with plans to reopen the company in a major US city. The worker, who asked that his name not be disclosed because he was not authorized to speak publicly about his employer, added: “They play their cards close to their chest because they don’t say if you can work from home forever, which makes me think you won’t make it.

Communication underload

Uncertainty over the permanence of remote working at some companies could impact workers who fled larger and more expensive cities during the pandemic. At G / O Media, a New York City digital media company whose portfolio includes The Onion and Jezebel, employees who have moved outside of a commuting distance don’t know if they will have a job when the The company’s office will open on October 15.

G / O Media employees “are waiting for a concrete statement to be made as to whether they should be in the office five days a week or resign.” There has been no clear communication from the CEO, HR or any department head, ”a company employee told HR Brew. (Full disclosure: I was employed by the publication G / O Media Lifehacker for 10 months between 2020 and 2021.)

Google initially told its global workforce of 135,000 that its comeback plan would be delayed until October 18, only to extend it further until January 2022. Many other companies from Big Tech and beyond are following the move. example of the search giant: according to a Gartner survey of 238 executives in August, 66% are delaying their plans to reopen. For workers on the ground, such delays are understandable, but the frustration can be compounded when plans to reopen are poorly communicated, especially when it comes to security amid a pandemic that still rages in parts of the world. country.

“The office itself is wide open with desks that are not spaced out or dividers,” said the G / O Media employee, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the company. “They’ve put hand sanitizer on every desk and don’t need masks, so they don’t seem to have a good understanding of best practices for Covid security while being in an enclosed space with lots of other people. “

Representatives for G / O Media and PayPal did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

As companies wait for OSHA to release details about President Joe Biden’s mandate for private sector vaccines, some have formulated their own vaccine safety policies, many of which have done little to address. allay the fears of workers. An employee of a major New York City book publishing house spoke to HR Brew about the company’s vaccine honor system and how it has created anxiety among the grassroots. “They don’t follow [vaccine] information; they don’t apply it or verify it. Basically you just have to put your information on an online portal, and you don’t have to provide proof of vaccination or proof of a Covid test, ”she said.

At PayPal, “everyone needs to be vaccinated,” but “they don’t ask for proof,” the PayPal employee told HR Brew, adding that employees are encouraged to check their vaccination status through an online form. requiring them to simply check a box. signifying their status.

The story of two offices

Meanwhile, HR managers are grappling with the existential dilemma of justifying the office’s purpose. Some, like Aran Klingensmith, vice president of people and culture at California software provider Fast Spring, have resisted the frenzied nature of reopening (and then closing again) firsthand. She told HR Brew that in June the company “opened the office for maybe two days, then things got bad in California, then we came back completely far away again.”

For now, Fast Spring’s 86-office office is open, but it’s only used by two employees per day, Klingensmith said. The company, which has a “voluntary disclosure of immunization status,” has implemented a number of social distancing protocols, such as contactless entry and spaced desks, but still struggles to bring in its 80s. employees based in Santa Barbara. “There is no one who has an answer, there is no manual,” Klingensmith said.

However, some companies have succeeded in bringing in workers, albeit gradually and on an optional basis. Maria Alvarado, facilities manager at analytics provider 1010 Data, explained how using the office as an optional workplace for her 100 New York-area employees has been a successful strategy. “There is no direction or pressure to enter the office,” she said, noting that the office is used for workers who “just want a change of scenery.” Alvarado believes that the lack of a definitive plan to return to the office alleviated the anxiety workers might otherwise feel if attendance at the office was mandatory.

While participation is voluntary, 1010 Data is an outlier in a pandemic, as it expanded its physical office space from one to two locations, in New York and New Jersey, during the pandemic. The key, according to Alvarado, is communicating plans with the workforce at a granular level, putting hard limits on how many people can work in the office at any given time, and implementing social distancing through office spacing and office masking. Workers also choose when they come to work and or they sit.

Ultimately, the “office” as most people knew it before 2020 is in the midst of a seismic shift, in which it may exist for more targeted purposes, and less as a community center for 40 hours per day. week or more. “Life won’t be like it was before Covid, especially in the office,” Klingensmith said. Businesses, she added, need to ask themselves, “What aspects of the office can we promote that will allow people to use space productively and can help us maintain our culture?” Especially when so few people want to come in.

The response can come in the form of monthly or quarterly workplace meetings, when teams travel to different areas for a week of collaboration. The HR Brew consultant he spoke to runs a video conferencing business and brings his employees together quarterly, a strategy he says works. “It’s easier when you have those moments where you know we’re all going to be physically interacting. I can plan around that, ”he said.

Given how many workers agree with this assessment, it’s plausible that the office of yesteryear will quickly evolve into something radically different from the relic we remember – less like your uncle’s pager and more like a place intentionally useful adapted for specific purposes. It seems the future begins now.—SB

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