Return to Work: A Discussion on Returning to the Post-Pandemic Workplace
Episode #1026: As the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, business leaders across the globe are questioning the next step for their employees and workspaces. Should businesses require employees to return to the workplace? If so, will employees want to come back? Should businesses begin to consider hybrid office spaces since many employees are requesting virtual employment? Severin Sorensen, host of the Arete Coach Podcast, introduces current research, statistics, and perspectives on this complex topic and discusses post-pandemic workplace issues with Ozzie Gontang, Pete Michaels, and Bridget Wenman. Join us as we examine the issue and look into ways of effectively moving forward.
About Severin Sorensen
Severin Sorensen is a serial entrepreneur and lifetime learner with a passionate curiosity for people and businesses. Severin is the CEO of ePraxis LLC, a premier level retained search firm that provides executive headhunting, talent selection, and executive coaching. In addition to finding top talent, Severin has provided over 7,500+ hours of paid executive coaching to entrepreneurs, CEOs, Presidents, and C-level executives. Severin is an ICF ACSTH Certified Executive Coach, Certified Organizational Development Coach, Certified Life Coach, and Certified Positive Intelligence® Coach. Severin is the founder/producer of a new podcast, Arete Coach, that explores the art and science of executive coaching with some of the industry's best coaches.
From 2010-2018 Severin was also a Vistage Chair where he coached three CEO and key executive groups. In 2011, Severin received the "Rookie of the Year Chair Award" from Vistage. Since 2013, Severin has added international speaking for Vistage, CEO conferences, executive peer groups, and corporations on the topic of identifying and hiring difference-making top talent.
After graduate school, Severin moved to Washington, DC, where he worked on security-related economic and public policy issues that included a brief stint in The White House, as a Special Assistant to the President, for George H. Bush (POTUS 41). In 1994, Severin founded Sparta Consulting Corp., and Sparta provided world-class physical security and safety related management consulting services for public and private sector entities. From 1994-2002, Severin managed HUD's Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design technical assistance and training program. In 2005, Severin sold Sparta to Westec Interactive (Digital Witness), which was subsequently acquired by Interface Security.
Severin, a native Californian, grew up in Salt Lake City, UT and graduated with honors from the University of Utah with Economics and Political Science degrees. He completed graduate studies in economics at King's College, Cambridge University (England), where he earned a M.Phil. degree in Economics. Severin has a great love and appreciation for sports, and while overseas, Severin rowed for the King's College Boat Club, and played basketball for the Cambridge University Basketball Team (1986-87).
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Current statistics and opinions of the Digital Nomad
PricewaterhouseCoopers’ survey has shown that 55% of employees would prefer to remain remote for at least three days a week once the pandemic recedes. This has created questions for many employers on how to return to the in-person workplace, and if a full return is necessary. They also report that 87% of executives are rethinking their real estate strategy for office spaces. With the pandemic pulling people towards areas with lower costs of living, many virtual employees have relocated from their once in-person offices. Furthermore, with the increase in the desire for virtual employment there is a decreased desire for office spaces.
For companies like Google—who are requiring their employees to return to the workplace—employees are threatening to find new jobs where they can continue to work remotely. Many of these employees who were moved to virtual employment have become “digital nomads” and are particularly enjoying the flexibility and freedom that the work from home lifestyle offers. These digital nomads and virtual workers have contested the demand from Google to return to the workplace as they believe that they have proven their value virtually and should be permitted to continue virtual work.
Virtual employees relocating
As introduced by the book, The Four Hour Work Week, many virtual workers are relocating to more affordable areas. Severin shares a story of an individual he knows making over $300,000 a year who lives in Vietnam to save money while working remotely. By relocating to more affordable areas, digital nomads are able to save more of the money that they earn.
Furthermore, virtual employees are spending more time at resorts, visiting friends, or traveling to other locations for fun. Severin shares an example of his own son who works hard during the day and has the flexibility to have fun where he pleases after work. Some individuals on Reddit are quoted saying things such as “I moved…and saw a 63% reduction in rent and utilities…” Others have found a balance between increased flexibility of work and living a more fulfilling life.
A sticky situation
Severin shares a story of an individual who is experiencing his formerly in-person workplace trying to get him to come back into the office. Corporations are increasingly trying to convince their employees of the importance of the in-person workplace. Severin states that “the horse has left the barn” in respect to employees realizing the freedom of working virtually. This situation is very “sticky” in that younger employees are likely to grasp on tightly to the benefits and outcomes of working from home. Severin shares a story of a company in Washington D.C. who created a unique approach to returning to work and states the importance for active discussion on the topic.
Research on working from home
Severin shares a research study that analyzed the outcomes of working from home versus working in the office. The findings of this study suggest that working from home increases productivity by 13% but also a decrease in the likelihood of promotion. Severin compares this to further research by New York and Harvard who also found a 13% greater productivity.
Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 10 considerations for returning to work
SHRM released ten considerations for returning to the post-pandemic workplace. Severin reviews and discusses each consideration. Some of these considerations offered by SHRM include workplace safety, employee benefits, and vaccination policies. Severin offers examples from his own experience handling workplace health needs. By analyzing the potential health risks and creating proper cleaning and material procedures, employers can further the overall health of their employees, decrease sick days, and increase overall production.
Potential discrimination by work type
Bridget Wenman introduces the concept of the differences between those who are able to stay home and those who are not. This can create an increased disparity between those employed virtually and those with in-person employment. This topic is further analyzed by Severin with the use of research from Stanford. Currently, virtual employment covers mostly knowledge-based worker careers. However, those who are not knowledge-based workers, such as those in retail, health care, transport, business services and other customer service careers do not have the ability to work from home. According to Stanford, higher-earning and more educated employees are more likely to work remotely than those with lower paying careers. Inequality between employees such as this can lead to even further inequality as those with virtual employment can continue sharpening their skills and those without in-person employment are unable to further their careers.
Increased working hours and a need for learning
With a reduction in commute time, virtual employees are working longer hours than those with in-person employment. Much of the increase in working hours has been explained by the reduced, or a total lack of, commute. Ozzie Gontang states that while longer hours are beneficial to the business as a whole, there could be social ramifications for the employee. The need for a work/life balance is essential, and some individuals purposefully use their commute home to “shut off” and say “I am no longer working.”
There has also been an increase in Zoom meetings and emails. In reflection, Severin summarizes the findings of research done by University of New York and Harvard. Furthermore, it is necessary to learn how to work effectively when working virtually. Severin shares a story about his experience of learning throughout the covid-19 pandemic and how it impacted his speeches with Vistage.
The flexibility of virtual employment
According to research conducted by McKinsey & Company, employees after the pandemic are more likely to prefer a flexible working model that allows them a balance between work and life—especially for those with young children or elderly that need to be taken care of. Severin shares a story of his experience as, what he called, a “time merchant.” Through this experience he shares, Severin learned to focus on task competition, rather than time management. Employees with young children, according to research by McKinsey & Company, are most likely to prefer flexible work locations.
JetBlue’s virtual employment
Severin introduces one of the early adopters of virtual employment, JetBlue, and explains their employment practice. Employees that were virtually employed by JetBlue, were given a monthly get together at a convention center. At this get together, they received training, community building activities, and a place to share ideas with coworkers. This monthly get together gave employees an increased sense of a community that is often fostered by the in-person office. By replacing the in-person office with these get togethers and giving employees the ability to work from home, employees were able to enjoy being a member of the type of community offered in a traditional office space while, without the strenuous need to balance work and personal life.
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