Published May 11th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
More than a year after COVID-19 sent office workers scurrying home, businesses are starting to bring them back. Those returning will see big changes, said experts during a panel discussion last week.
They likely will run into fewer co-workers, at least initially. Those congregating at the office will keep more distance from each other than they used to, and will likely book fewer business trips.
Many foresee a “hybrid” model, with some employees working at the company office and others working from home, at least part of the time.
“The employees of our workforces are never going back to what it was,” said Tracy Platt, executive vice president and chief human resource officer for Cerner Corp., a healthcare information technology company. “There’s not going to be a specific destination for office like there was in the past. We are mobilizing on this, where it’s really a mix. It’s an opportunity to accelerate on a trend that was already in play, and really think about the work.”
The May 5 panel discussion, “Shaping the New Normal: How Businesses are Evolving Post-Pandemic,” was sponsored by Healthy KC and the Executive Women’s Leadership Council, which are part of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. The other panel members were Renita Mollman, chief administrative officer of the Burns & McDonnell engineering design firm, and Wendee Woodson, director of human resources with GBA, an engineering and architectural company.
“We’re now probably 50-to-60% back in the office,” Mollman said. “We have safety measures and cleanliness measures, so that when people return to the office they feel very safe. We’re hoping by the middle of summer that we’re predominantly back in the office, but we are going to be offering more flex days throughout the year when people need to be at home. They can work from home and still function.”
Woodson said GBA is more than halfway through a four-phase return-to-office schedule.
“We’ve surveyed our folks who were working from home. We brought them back in phases to their comfort level. Now we’re in phase three, with about 75 or 80% back. We brought people back safely, following protocol. Our facilities team had the PPE (personal protective equipment), the partitions, with people spaced out.”
Platt said company leaders who look askance at the hybrid work model need to look at data that “demonstrates the effectiveness of such models. It’s the gospel truth.”
Woodson said GBA’s leadership has learned to trust the ability of its staff to work productively at home.
“That was a huge lesson,” Woodson said. “We’re pretty old school, and working from home was never an option. Now we have a work-from-home policy.”
But while employees have “done a great job staying connected from our home offices, many of us are chomping at the bit to get back and work together,” Woodson said.
A recent Kansas City area employer survey found that 15% had brought everyone back to the work site, said panel moderator Stacie Engelmann, vice president and human resource consultant with Lockton Companies.
Another 51% of the respondents said more than half their employees were working remotely, Engelmann said. Nearly one-quarter anticipated having their workforce back in the office in the next one to three months, while 40% said they don’t know when their employees will be coming back.
The survey also revealed that 70% of respondents were planning for a hybrid workforce.
“This multi-faceted approach can create big challenges for leaders in HR and across the business,” Engelmann said. “In a number of months, the COVID-19 crisis has brought about years of change in the way that companies in all sectors and regions do business.”
Some employees don’t have the option to work from home. Mollman, with Burns & McDonnell, noted that construction workers have to work at the job site. And some Cerner employees work in the facilities of hospitals that are Cerner clients, Platt said.
But working from home can have its drawbacks.
“We hire about 200 new grads a year,” Mollman said. “They require a lot of mentoring. We need our senior engineers and staff in the office mentoring them. And they want to be in the office. They don’t want to be sitting at home. They’re 22 years old and want to be in a fun environment.”
Working from home also takes a toll on leadership development, Woodson said.
“That’s just something that happens better sometimes in person,” Woodson said. “Some of that’s been delayed and we’ll be playing catch up on some of those programs, but we try to leverage that time at home for anything they can do to develop online.”
Companies also are taking a hard look at space needs and business travel.
“We’re not leveraging spaces that we don’t necessarily need,” Platt said.
Woodson said GBA expects to be sending employees on fewer business trips. “We found out we don’t have to have all the in-person meetings with clients. I think that will be here to stay.”
In addition, the panelists said their companies are taking steps to foster mental health among employees who have suffered under the strain of the pandemic.
“We have an EAP (employee assistance program) that we encourage people to reach out to,” Mollman said. “We have added telehealth to mental health. The other thing we’re doing a lot of in our offices is trying to have fun, just trying to lighten the mood.”
Woodson said GBA has a “robust wellness program, and over the past year we have focused on emotional and mental wellbeing and behavioral health. We did a lot of sessions related to depression and anxiety related to the pandemic.”
Platt said a significant number of Cerner employees have found it difficult to get out of work mode as their productivity skyrocketed.
“We expanded the services we had already,” Platt said. “We had fitness centers that went virtual. We helped leaders understand the signs, and what they can do to engage in a meaningful conversation with an associate around how they’re doing. Not about work, but more on ‘how are you doing, how’s your family? What are things I can do to help support you as you balance some of the demands?’ ”
But amid all the changes, some aspects of office life remain entrenched.
“What we’ve learned is that people need their coffee,” Woodson said. “You cannot bring them back to the workplace unless you’ve got coffee. Get the coffee under control sooner. And what they really want now is access to the refrigerator.”
Flatland contributor Julius A. Karash is a Kansas City-based writer.