For Michiganders who transitioned to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, the prospect of returning to in-person work is… complicated. Working from home does involve a lot of new distractions, from kids, to pets, to the lawnmower next door. But it can also allow for greater flexibility, new kinds of family and friend time, and a stronger sense of autonomy on the job.
We’re not yet back to the sort of in-person interactions that we considered normal before the pandemic hit. But as more Michiganders receive vaccine, and businesses make plans for the future, what will the workplace look like in a post-pandemic environment?
First of all, we all need to take a breath, said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber. The pandemic’s not over yet.
“The middle of a crisis is a terrible time to predict how we're going to behave postcrisis,” Baruah said.
But, he adds, there are many variables to consider when thinking about what a return to the workplace could look like. Stateside spoke with Baruah and Crain’s Detroit Business senior reporter Dustin Walsh about how employers bring staff back to the office (or don’t). Here’s what they’ve been noticing:
(Re)building workplace culture
If you’re a remote worker now, you’ve likely gotten used to meeting with teammates on Zoom or a similar virtual meeting platform. But Baruah said it’s not easy to build a workplace culture when all interactions take place virtually, especially when it comes time for some staff members to leave or when new hires join the team.
“It's hard to build new relationships over electronic means,” he said. “You really need to read body language. You need to go to lunch together. You need to kind of have those personal, in-person interactions.”
Walsh said connecting with colleagues just isn’t the same on virtual platforms like Zoom and Slack.
“In journalism, you know, there's this weird adrenaline dump that comes with chasing big stories. And that's sort of an infectious thing that kind of spills over to your other coworkers as they're working,” he said. “So that's what I miss really, is my ability to stand up and yell something about big news and get everyone's attention and their ideas immediately.”
On the job from… 9 to 5?
Now that workers have noticed certain benefits to their new work-from-home lifestyles, Baruah said, some employers have told him they don’t plan on bringing staff back into the office five days a week. He said that at his organization, staff will have greater flexibility in how often or what time they come into the office.
“Frankly, as an employer, if I didn't do that, you know, my employees and fellow team members would say, ‘Well, forget this. If this boss is going to make me come in nine to five, five days a week, I'm going to find an employer that's much more enlightened.’ So it's going to be in the employer's interest to respond to what their employees are asking for,” Baruah said.
But, Walsh added, decision-making about hours and flexibility will likely depend on the company and its size. He said large organizations with diverse boards likely won’t force staff to come back, but smaller, mid-sized companies might. And, Walsh noted, politics will likely play a role in the organization’s stance.
“Owners of companies that tend to sort of not buy into the virus and don't really think it is a thing or have been harmed, maybe, by the shutdown orders from the governor or the health department, they may force people to come back simply because they don't buy into it,” he said. “I think you're going to see sort of a divide, and a lot of it's going to be along political lines.”
A K-shaped economy
Baruah said the pandemic has accelerated the nation’s K-shaped economy. While some sectors are recovering or have even done well financially during the pandemic, other demographics are still struggling, Baruah said.
“People with skills, people with resources, are thriving, and they've thrived throughout COVID. In fact, household wealth, according to the Federal Reserve Bank, has never been higher, at $130.2 trillion. But we still have a segment of society that is, frankly almost growing that is doing worse and worse,” he said. “Essentially, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.”
Walsh said women and minority groups, in particular, face significant financial and workforce-related challenges during the pandemic.
“If you want to help those people out, your neighbors that are in the bottom part of that K, the smartest thing you can do is to get vaccinated as soon as humanly possible and get back into the office, because the stats, you know, speak for themselves,” Walsh said. “That would cause the economy to recover at a much quicker pace.”
But, he added, some remote workers don’t want to go back to the office — and, if they do, they may want the workplace to be different from how it was in March 2020. So, an increase in work from home could create a gradual shift in the economy.
“There's going to be these pockets of joblessness that may not recover, depending on whether people decide to go back to the office,” Walsh said.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.