As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to subside in both case numbers and hospitalizations, many Corridor employers are either bringing many of their workers back on-site in some form or have already implemented return-to-work initiatives. However, many companies had outlined plans to bring workers back to in-person work in December until the surge of the COVID-19 […]
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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to subside in both case numbers and hospitalizations, many Corridor employers are either bringing many of their workers back on-site in some form or have already implemented return-to-work initiatives.
However, many companies had outlined plans to bring workers back to in-person work in December until the surge of the COVID-19 omicron variant added another layer of uncertainty, according to a Marketwatch article published in December.
Nationally, Google and Ford were among those who delayed their return-to-office plans. Meta, formerly known as Facebook, and ridesharing company Lyft separately announced they were letting workers delay their return when offices fully reopened in January. Meta said they would allow workers to delay their return as late as June, while Lyft says it won’t require workers to come back to its offices for all of 2022, though they fully reopened in February.
Janelle Gale, vice president of human resources for Meta, said the company’s December decision recognized “some aren’t quite ready to come back.”
The moves indicated how difficult it’s been for companies to set firm plans for their employees’ mandatory return as worries about a spike in new cases or new variants continue to shift deadlines.
Still, as confidence continues to grow that the pandemic is evolving into a longer-term endemic, more companies feel confident that they can implement plans to bring more workers back to various-site scenarios.
‘Help people feel comfortable’
Samantha Rogers, human resources business director for Cedar Rapids-based human resources and recruiting firm Skywalk Group, said companies should consider how a return-to-work strategy will impact their overall business goals.
“Is the goal to have people on-site to control the culture?” Ms. Rogers said. “Is it to have people on-site because we miss the way it used to be, and we just want to get back to that? Is it because we’re addressing a need with customer service that was suffering, numbers that were down, goals that weren’t being met? Whatever the need is, I think we address those in different ways. But we certainly want to communicate why we’re bringing people back, so employees aren’t left to guess and make assumptions that could hurt the culture.”
It can be helpful, Ms. Rogers said, for employers to gather input from their employees regarding any return-to-work proposals before fully implementing them.
A recent national survey by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) showed that six out of 10 respondents who can work from home continue to do so. Moreover, most workers prefer that option in some form if it’s feasible.
“If you are deciding to bring people back, whatever the reasons – which employers are hopefully communicating – doing so in stages is a good idea,” she said. “Don’t just rip the (bandage) off. Help people feel comfortable with the decision slowly and over time.”
The most successful organizations have started their return-to-work plans with a hybrid approach, Ms. Rogers said. “Half the workforce Mondays and Tuesdays, the other half on Wednesdays and Thursdays, with Fridays optional,” she said, citing one example. “There’s so many things you can do to maintain a culture if you decide, ‘I can save by not paying these administrative office fees. We don’t have to have the secretary greeting people at the door.
People were successful working from home. Let’s continue doing this and downsize our office.’”
Deb Dirks, human resources director for Crystal Group, a computer hardware manufacturer based in Hiawatha, said that, like many other companies, her organization’s approach to COVID-19 changed over time.
When the pandemic began in early 2020, Crystal Group’s manufacturing workers were spaced apart to observe social distancing. The company implemented a second shift to facilitate more distancing. And while masking wasn’t required at workstations, employees had to wear masks anytime they stepped away from their work area.
Mask-wearing protocols then eased briefly as vaccines became more widely available before tightening again when the omicron variant surfaced.
She said the company’s office workers returned on-site about a year ago. As decisions continued to be made, Ms. Dirks said, company officials, relied extensively on official guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.
“We’ve used CDC guidelines as our guidepost because there would be so many mixed messages from so many different sources,” she said. “As long as we stick to (CDC recommendations) we could be consistent for all employees and keep the communication clear. It can get chaotic if you’re doing it one way today and one way tomorrow. I believe our employers appreciated that we went to a source and followed it.”
Ms. Dirks said she feels employees have appreciated the opportunity to return to a semblance of normal operations.
“Our company wants to be focused back on work as usual,” she said. “It’s less stressful for them right now. With the masks, they had to always be careful – which direction are they going? Who are they standing by? I think the community itself is tired of this after two years. I don’t think people wanted to wear masks; they felt like they had to, so to be able to breathe more freely is a lift for all of us.”
Flexibility is highly valued
At ACT in Iowa City, employees have worked closely with their managers to determine their work location. According to Mark Larson, ACT’s senior director of talent strategy, while some employees have returned full-time to their offices, most have chosen to be either fully remote or hybrid moving forward.
“Our recent engagement survey shows this flexibility is highly valued by our team members, and we plan to support that flexibility going forward,” Mr. Larson said. “We communicated with our team members that their comfort levels on safety were important and that we would do our best to meet their preferences. In addition, we found that productivity and engagement have remained strong and flexibility is important to our team members, so we have continued to find ways to support the variety of work arrangements.”
ACT has established a formal Flexible Work Arrangement Policy and a Connected Team Member Policy to support employees’ preferences, Mr. Larson said.
The pandemic provided both challenges and opportunities to ACT’s recruitment strategies, Mr. Larson added.
“While there were definite challenges that required changes to our interviewing, onboarding, collaborating and networking processes, ACT’s approach has created more opportunities for recruitment and retention,” he said.
SHRM recently reported on a Bloomberg Morning Consult poll in mid-January that found most workers would rather quit than return to the office. The poll showed that 55% of remote workers would consider leaving their job if asked back before they felt safe, up from 45% just a week earlier.
Ruben Ugarte, a data and decision strategist, said most companies are doing everything to return to pre-pandemic office culture. Still, the reality is that work expectations have fundamentally changed.
“Employees want flexibility in where and when they work,” he said. “Bringing people into the office just for them to sit next to each other while wearing headphones makes no sense. The best companies are shifting into a ‘community center’ model where offices are gathering places for social events. People come together to relax and share ideas. Companies can explore structured and unstructured office days, both of which are wholly focused on letting people engage. Let employees do all other work from their houses, couch or local coffee shop.”
As Ms. Rogers sees it, a variety of worksite options can, and should, be considered depending on the needs of specific businesses.
“Some are making the decision to return because there’s a business need,” she said. “That can be easier to communicate because you may not have any choice. Others are just recalling people because they’re nostalgic about the way it used to be, and they’d like it to go back, to control that culture in-house. Others are saying, ‘did we not just survive, but thrive?’ Their customers are pleased; their employees are liking this better. They’ve surveyed people, and they’re either going to stick with a work-from-home model or incorporate something hybrid. We’re seeing it all.”