What We’ve Learned After One Year of COVID-19

March 11, 2021, marked the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring a global pandemic due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The impact of COVID-19, concurrent with other major forces within American society, created a watershed moment in the workplace; it is common to hear people speaking of life before COVID as though it was a time in the distant past, quickly receding into memory. Sourced from a variety of surveys and reports, as well as interactions with our members over the past year, here’s what we’ve learned.

Remote work works.

It would be difficult to find another widespread workplace initiative that has been as successful, so quickly, as the rapid move to remote work necessitated by social distancing measures. Despite this significant disruption to the status quo, over 90% of employers report their remote workers are equally or more productive as when they worked in the office. Equally important, employees report high satisfaction levels, and a majority wish to continue with at least some remote work when the pandemic wanes. In response, many employers are quickly moving to capture this productivity and are reducing their real estate footprint to secure significant operational savings; they are also seeking talent from an expanded labor market. Whether these efforts will result in sustainable, long-term gains is unknown; research indicates higher turnover and lower loyalty levels among remote workers. It is also unknown whether innovation will suffer from employees not being physically close in the workplace. Will that negate the early gains promised by remote working? Only longer-term data will reveal the answer.

Workplace cultures with strong interpersonal relationships build organizational survival.

Flexibility. Transparency. Trust. Resiliency. Workplace relationships rich with these attributes are likely to positively influence workplace culture and improve overall organizational effectiveness. These attributes inspire employees to do their best work and release individual and team energies that create innovative solutions to business challenges. This enabled employers to rapidly pivot business models and processes to survive and even thrive during the pandemic. Going forward, nurturing workplace relationships with these attributes will build cultures to survive the volatile marketplace where expectations have changed among all stakeholders.

Equality is a start; equitable workplaces require effort, imagination, and a leap of faith.

Even as each worker faces unequal challenges in their personal and work lives, employment laws generally require that employers treat their employees equally. The pandemic revealed that employees may require different supports to manage challenges and be successful in their jobs. An example of this unequal burden during the pandemic is how working mothers disproportionately bear the burden of home-schooling children due to closures of schools; many have not been able to balance this unexpected role with their employers’ expectations and, as a result, millions of working mothers have had to leave the workforce. Beyond offering mandated leave benefits to working mothers, what else could their employers do? Workplace equality is the minimum; employers committed to workplace equity will put forth extra effort to target each employee’s unique needs to succeed. By acknowledging their employees’ diverse needs and adopting flexible workplace practices, employers are more likely to create an equitable workplace where all employees are set up for success.

Every worker deserves dignity and respect.

Prior to the pandemic, it was unlikely that grocery store workers would ever be mentioned in the same breath as healthcare workers. The pandemic revealed how society heavily relies on the work of low-paid and often underappreciated “essential workers”; without these workers, American businesses could not function. In many workplaces, some employees were sent home to remote work while others were still required to report in-person to the workplace, establishing a very visible difference that could lead to an unhealthy “us versus them” atmosphere. In such hybrid workplaces of in-person and remote workers, finding a balance of policies, benefits, and support strategies to ensure all employees feel equally valued and supported, is a must for employers.

Mental health is an essential business function.

Levels of stress, anxiety, and depression soared during the pandemic among a wide array of disciplines. Essential workers who could not social distance from the virus experienced fear, stress, and anxiety; suicide rates increased among some professions such as healthcare. Many remote workers suffered mental health crises related to isolation. Burnout and fatigue are rampant; many remote workers report their workday never ends; many in-person essential workers have experienced forced overtime. For sustainable, thriving workplaces where engaged employees drive innovation, employers must prioritize mental health wellness and take extra efforts to connect employees with effective resources.

Employees are people first; work/life separation is a fiction.

Common practice prior to the pandemic was for employers to tell employees to “leave your personal life issues at the door”; yet employers tore that door off its hinges when they sent employees home to do their jobs. Studies and cultural trends reveal the supposed sacred barrier between work and personal life was always a fiction. When given the support and flexibility to balance the various challenges they face in their personal lives, employees can be productive when being their whole selves. Compartmentalization is an effective strategy to offer employees when they feel overwhelmed, setting aside distinct time blocks to focus on work issues and personal issues. Employers may support help workers learn compartmentalization skills and adjust work expectations accordingly by focusing on work results, instead of how/ when work is done. For example, work may happen in small increments, perhaps 1-2 hours here and there throughout the day, instead of one continuous eight-hour block of time.

Investing in technology is essential; so is investing in the human capacity to use technology.

The overnight transition to remote work was only made possible by technology combined with human capability. For many employers unable to disperse their workforce, such as restaurants, remaining operational also relied on technological solutions to connect with their clients and customers; online ordering, customer servicing, and coordination of services are examples. Employers who had already invested in technology initiatives, including worker training as well as IT team expertise, were able to quickly adopt new business modalities. This success adds urgency to every employer’s technology strategies; competitors can quickly gain marketplace advantages thanks to constantly evolving technology paired with effective implementation. An explosion in cyberattacks and fraudulent claims for unemployment insurance benefits reveals the dangers faced by employers who do not invest in employee cybersecurity training. Underutilized technology often results from employee resistance at various levels; technology strategy must place equal emphasis on human capabilities to maximize success.

Government’s power is awesome.

Legislation and regulation from the federal to the local level dictated the fate of every employer. Employers found themselves subject to a tsunami of complex and sometimes conflicting government forces from shutdowns, forced openings, mandated benefits, and public health orders. Workplaces will continue to be subject to enhanced government interventions for a variety of reasons that extend beyond the pandemic, so Leaders should consider strategies to accommodate this enhanced activity.

Business continuity requires thinking the unthinkable.

Prior to COVID-19, most employers did not consider a public health crisis as equally threatening as more dramatic acts of nature such as fires and floods. Many employers did not have any disaster plan at all. Although it is impossible to predict the future, employers of all sizes would be well served to contemplate what measures they can take today to mitigate future disasters’ business impact. A good place to start is the free government resources for business continuity planning. 

Complexity is the New Normal.

Putting all the pieces together, employers face a higher level of complexity in balancing employee expectations, responding to customer demands, and managing government intervention. Many aspects of the workplace have likely changed for good; as such, previous strategies and attitudes are no longer adequate to guide the organization into a successful future. Leaders who accept this reality and actively seek diverse perspectives, internally and externally, will likely be more successful in stewarding their organizations forward. Employers Council can help, so contact us today.