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COVID-19 is transforming workplace culture

Companies need to think carefully about the value proposition associated with bringing employees back to the office and make sure it is clearly communicated to employees, according to Bradford S. Bell, the ILR School’s William J. Conaty Professor in Strategic Human Resources.

Bell, director of the Cornell Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies, recently discussed how organizations are recalibrating workplace strategies to reflect lessons learned during the pandemic.

Priorities for the post-pandemic shift – where should organizations start?

There remains substantial ambiguity about exactly when we will be “post-pandemic” and when we will be able to bring employees back to the workplace. Indeed, the recent uptick in cases and delays with the distribution of vaccines has led many companies to already push back their return dates.

The upside, however, is that this provides organizations with more lead time to work through issues related to post-pandemic work and the workplace, including their remote work strategy and workplace redesign.

The pandemic accelerated remote work options. How will companies calculate their mix of hub, home and hybrid work arrangements?

Companies’ remote work strategies should be devised based on input from multiple stakeholders, including operations, IT, HR and real estate, since these groups are likely to consider different factors when analyzing the optimal mix of hub, home and hybrid work arrangements.

For example, real estate may prefer a greater utilization of home and hybrid arrangements so as to reduce the real estate footprint and associated costs. However, HR and operations may recognize that some types of work are not a good fit for these arrangements and may push for greater utilization of hub arrangements. Ultimately, by weighing these different issues and viewpoints, companies will be better positioned to determine the optimal mix of hub, home and hybrid work arrangements.

How quickly can post-pandemic remote work practices be implemented? 

A silver lining of the pandemic is that it has forced the rapid and widespread adoption of remote work practices that otherwise would likely have taken years or even decades to unfold. Companies are therefore well positioned to implement remote work practices quickly in the post-pandemic environment.

The challenge will be recognizing that remote work during the pandemic is, in many ways, different from what it will look like in the post-pandemic environment, and therefore some existing practices will need to be adjusted and new ones will need to be adopted. For example, in many companies, a majority of employees are currently working remotely.

Going forward, however, employees will be distributed across a more varied mix of work arrangements, which could lead to differences in employees’ opportunities and experiences if not effectively managed. For instance, research has shown that remote workers are less likely to be promoted than their office-based counterparts because they tend to be “out of sight, out of mind.” To avoid such inequities, companies will need to find ways to create a level playing field as employees transition into different types of work arrangements.

Many workers want to continue working from home, but will be required to return to the office. How can companies sequence the return to the office in a way that motivates employees to re-engage with the traditional workplace?

Companies will need to think carefully about the value proposition associated with bringing employees back to the office and make sure it is clearly communicated to employees.  For instance, is the purpose of the office going forward to provide people with access to critical tools, technology and information? Is it to facilitate collaboration and creativity?

If employees understand the “why” – why is it important to their own and the companies’ success for them to be in the office – they will be more likely to re-engage.  As a final note, I would highlight that once companies identify the purpose of the office, they will likely need to redesign the space to best serve that purpose. Thus, in most cases, employees won't be asked to return to the traditional workplace, but one that has been redesigned to suit post-pandemic work.

If remote work allows companies to attract more highly qualified and diverse talent, how will workplaces need to change to allow these new workers to flourish?

Although remote work can enable companies to reach a more diverse talent pool, whether they are successful in attracting, engaging and retaining diverse talent will continue to depend on their company culture and the extent to which it values and supports diversity, equity and inclusion. The challenge is to avoid discrepancies in how employees who are embedded in different types of work arrangements experience the culture. This is another example of creating a level playing field.

What traits will distinguish highly successful companies in the transition to the post-pandemic workplace?

One of the most important takeaways from the pandemic is that it has served as a catalyst for cultural transformation.  For example, companies have witnessed an increase in trust, a flattening of hierarchies, and more rapid and agile decision-making. The companies that will be most successful in the transition from the pandemic to the post-pandemic workplace will be those that find ways to sustain these cultural benefits and avoid a “cultural retreat.”

What worker traits will be highly sought?

Companies will continue to need a workforce that is diverse in terms of skills, abilities, traits and qualities. The key will be to determine which model of work is the best fit for a particular employee so they are able to fully express their unique talents.

How will training and development change in the post-pandemic work world?

Pre-pandemic, about 40% of all training in organizations was done virtually. The pandemic has forced companies to move many of their training and development offerings online. Although some programs will revert to in-person when that is again an option, we will definitely see more training and development done virtually as companies leverage the lessons learned during the pandemic.

This story also appears on the ILR website.
Mary Catt is the ILR School’s communications director.

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