Post Pandemic Planning – Should the U.S. Go Back to the Office After COVID-19?
It’s been six months since a national emergency was declared as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This past week, the US passed the grim threshold of 200,000 pandemic-related deaths out of nearly 7 million reported cases, and experts are predicting that it may be mid-2021 or even 2022 before a semblance of normal life will return.
This has led to most large organizations – public and private – implementing distance work strategies to avoid close-quarter work practices, with mixed results concerning productivity and overall mental well-being of employees. Some companies and government agencies are considering keeping this new lifestyle after the pandemic ends, but a question arises: should they keep the new normal or revert to the old ways of working once the pandemic come to an end?
Challenges and Benefits to Distance Work Arrangements. There are many challenges associated with managing remotely that many companies are facing for the first time, and many ways of mitigating risks associated with this new normal. One of the key challenges in remote working lays in leadership and motivating employees to perform from home as though they were at an office, perhaps without the resources most office settings can offer. The ability for collaboration among coworkers is now dependent on technology to connect versus the ability to walk to an office and get an answer. When promotions or new opportunities for employees arise, there could be a lack of understanding regarding the amount of work it takes to perform a task, since no longer can a supervisor see an employee working—they have to now judge based purely on the outputs of previous work. When the pandemic comes to an end, companies and governments will have to weigh more than just the cost savings of reducing office space, but also the second and third order of effects of missing daily interactions.
Working from home can have many benefits for both employer and employee, as well as many limitations. Benefits include flexibility for employees’ daily schedules, lack of commute, and cost savings associated with them. Limitations can be quality technological solutions, response timeliness, and security issues, both from a proprietary solution perspective and, especially when working with the government, ability to work in a classified environment.
Jobs That Can’t Be Done from Home. There are many types of jobs that exist which cannot be performed from home. First responders, as an example, are still needed to be physically at work. Without their diligence and bravery, society would not function. The United States military spends most of its time training to perform its mission defending the United States from enemies, foreign and domestic. Can the military perform its mission from a telework environment? Will the military adjust its training strategy once the COVID-19 pandemic is over?
The answer to the military problem is that it is very complicated. A recent poll suggests that only about half of the Soldiers in the US military believe that enough is being done to protect them during this current pandemic. Unfortunately, the threats in the world that the US military is training to protect the United States from do not rest, even during the pandemic, and so there will always be risks associated with maintaining readiness. With careful thought and consideration for social distancing protocols, including mandatory mask usage and as much outdoor training as possible, most training can be accomplished with minimal risk during the pandemic, and afterwards the military may convert some administrative positions to distance work. The U.S. Air Force is already considering permanently leaving home about a third of their force after the pandemic is over, which is a direct result of lessons learned in the past several months.
A major problem for the government is how to safely continue to plan for contingency operations. At a strategic level, plans for how the military will posture itself for the future are highly sensitive, and nearly impossible to accomplish from a telework environment due to the nature of the information required to ensure security. Additionally, the military prides itself on its appearance and physical abilities, and teleworking solutions would put more personal responsibility of maintaining fitness on the individual service member. Once the pandemic ends, the military will have a particularly challenging decision to make about the return to ‘normal.’
When considering how to operate after the pandemic ends, a decision matrix – one that weighs all the pros and cons of returning to normalcy – is a widely accepted method. A planned, impartial, and structured framework that balances as many concerns with benefits as is practical to come to an informed decision.
The key to informing the decision matrix is the answer to a simple question: how do they measure success of its employees? Is it productivity alone? Are all employees treated equally regarding responsibility? Maybe some people really enjoy working from home and can maintain productivity, while others cannot. If the option to come back to the office exists, do you bring in only those who must, and save office space of those who do not? It’s a careful line to walk, because it has the potential to create an air of favoritism or encourage competition in a way that may not be productive. These are but a few things to think about when considering permanent changes to how an organization operates, even when the national emergency is over. As an example, the military could consider leaving their considerable administrative support workforce at home (in and out processing, finance, etc.), but continue operating as normal otherwise regarding training and deployments.
Next Steps for Leaders and Employees. It will be tempting for companies or government agencies to decide to reduce their infrastructure footprint to save money, based on the idea that productivity didn’t drop during the pandemic. The decision must instead come down to leadership ability and clear expectations for employees.
For leaders at all levels, but particularly those leaders who have employees that directly report to them, there are many challenges. Very frequently there are last minute deadlines that require overtime or other additional efforts, and the ability for a leader to get their employees to crash through the night remotely might pose problems. Sometimes hard decisions must be made, and delays will ensue while trying to get team consensus without careful planning ahead of time. Some leaders will excel at this, while others will not.
Employees face similar issues, but from a different perspective. If an employee can complete 100 percent of their job from their new home office, and a last-minute task comes to their supervisor, is it appropriate for the supervisor to call the employee during off hours to get a task done? In a normal environment, work is done in an office, and while sometimes employees will get called back in, there are strings attached to that request: maybe they have children they need to watch or are currently out of the area. If they can do work from home at any time, where is the line drawn between being at work and spending time with their family? Additionally, what leeway should an employee receive because they now work from home, but also are trying to take care of raising a child? Should they have to provide proof of childcare to telework or is it acceptable, assuming their work gets completed? It is important to consider all the dynamics that working from home brings into the workplace from an employee perspective.
Conclusion. For any company or government agency to succeed in the new workplace, the key to success will be through its employees. Avoiding rigid, non-adaptive leadership will be key to determining if a company or government organization can change more permanently after the pandemic and should be weighed heavily against any cost savings or non-human factors. Each company or government organization will have to figure out what changes to make when the nation returns to the normal, and there is no one solution for everyone. Ensuring a thorough review of all relevant factors, from moral to revenue to leadership, will help make any post-pandemic transition a success.
Disclaimer: The ideas and opinions presented in this paper are those of the author and do not represent an official statement by the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Army, or other government entity.