Empty chairs and Desktop computers at desks in office

Is the Office of Yesterday Never Coming Back?

Rachel Stewart Johnson

Psychologist | Driven by communications about human behavior in Work

As the pandemic’s storm begins to settle, what has shifted temporarily and what has changed forever? How to be ready to make decisions for the workday of the near future.

To think about the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, let’s consider the example of a hiking trail. Imagine that this is a route you visit regularly, and the terrain is familiar to you. One spring night, there’s a particularly heavy rain that sweeps across the hillsides. The abundance of water creates dramatic changes in the short term. Streams of water run down the slopes, and dirt turns into mud. After the storm passes, the once-familiar trail has a new look. Hiking this trail is a different experience than it had been: there are rivets to clear and stretches of slippery mud to navigate. As more time passes in the storm’s aftermath, pools of water eventually evaporate and the mud hardens. But some changes will be permanent -- there will be lasting erosion of the trail and rivets will linger.

Our initial responses to the coronavirus of 2020 brought widespread changes in the most acute period of lockdowns. With layoffs, furloughs, and distributed workforces accompanying revenue disruptions, many businesses were forced into a triage approach, meeting urgent needs with action. As all 50 states and many countries around the world now emerge from this first chaotic period, we can think of ourselves as occupying the “day after the rain” phase. Risk mitigation efforts still have considerable effects on business operations and daily life, particularly in some regions.

As we move further past the storm, we can begin to ask how our “hiking trails” will be permanently changed. Given practical benefits of distributed workforces along with lingering precautions in disease prevention, some leading organizations have called for months-long periods of working from home, while others have suggested that the work-from-home option should be a permanent fixture of our professional lives.

For professionals in Human Resources, questions are plentiful. Let’s start to answer some of those questions by considering three points. As we continue toward the third and fourth quarters of 2020, these and similar issues will be of rising importance.

Point 1: Is Candidate Experience still a priority?

Does this period of high unemployment now mean that we can drop our progress toward a better Candidate Experience? The answer is an emphatic no, and the reasons for that are multi-faceted. Recent data from the US Census Bureau found that a startling 34% of American adults report experiencing one or more symptoms of clinical depression, anxiety, or both. This ought not be surprising, given the scale of disruptions to daily life and the varied sources of anxiety encompassing both the virus and our responses to it. Leading HR professionals will recognize that the talent pool is less healthy than it once was. That makes this a time to do better as we know better. Humanize the Candidate Experience. Give people feedback; provide actionable takeaways. Make the job application process something that engages and informs a job seeker, not one that becomes another source of stress.

There’s a second emerging reason to prioritize Candidate Experience in the SARS-CoV-2 era. Individuals seeking to return to the paid workforce from unemployment rolls will eventually begin applying widely for positions as lockdowns are lifted. That reality, coupled with continuing reliance on online-only interactions, creates a challenge to cut through the fog, so to speak. It will be more difficult than usual to “read” your candidates. Candidate Experience is a 2020 priority not simply to boost the employment brand or speed up processes. It now must go deeper, to include ways to learn more about candidates, even from a distance. Assessments with the power to inform hiring managers about job seekers in meaningful, role-relevant ways will be essential; more so if those data-capture tools can deliver insights without the tradeoff of a lengthy or tedious process.

Point 2: Can one size fit all?

If a workplace places continuing value on a work-from-home approach, it’s important to take a look at any unintended consequences arising from that shift. One consideration is whether a universal policy makes the most sense, or whether accommodations can be made to enable employees to choose daily office life, WFH, or some hybrid of the two. Recent pre-pandemic survey data showed that employees who split their time between in-office and WFH settings were 70% more likely than those who work in only one setting to have a more favorable Employee Experience score. Customizing both one’s setting and one’s work hours may be effective steps toward ensuring that employees remain engaged and satisfied.

Insights are emerging about other outcomes associated with the platforms required for working from home. While flexibility, reduced commuting hours, and a reduction of geographic limitations are all plusses, other factors may be a concern. Anecdotal reports of “Zoom fatigue” refer to the experience of finding video chat meetings to be more draining and less engaging than in-person exchanges. The effect may be a widespread phenomenon.

Although research is not extensive, psychologists have long observed that face-to-face communication is a finely-tuned interplay of turn-taking and the reading of cues -- and its origins lie in the earliest interactions between newborns and others. The synchronization between what one speaker does and how another responds is likely to be more effortful in video chat formats. Minor time lags combined with not-to-scale and limited views of one’s conversational partners interrupt the natural flow of communication. Also disorienting: the default of seeing one’s own image alongside others. Finally, the format suffers from the inability to reference shared space or to tolerate periods of silence.

It’s possible that some individuals may be more keenly tuned into -- and bothered by -- these variations than others. This also suggests that some positions may be better fits for a full-WFH format, while others are less so. Those that require a lot of small-group meetings, that rely on “reading the room” to gauge responses to suggestions and feedback, and that are centered around the creation and cultivation of social connections may be the worst candidates for long-term remote work. Relatedly, certain personalities may be more afflicted by Zoom fatigue or, alternatively, more enriched by in-person exchanges, and therefore also poor fits for the WFH lifestyle.

Point 3: Is this sustainable?

In the midst of a crisis, the parameters for decision-making are lurched sharply to one side or another. As time passes, those adjustments are in need of renewed evaluation. Reluctance among some personnel to return to office environments this spring may arise in part from continuing practical concerns, like the ongoing closures of schools and child care centers. Will WFH arrangements hold up as the months pass? Paco Ybarra, head of Citibank’s investment banking division, recently told the Financial Times that the benefit of a work-from-home workforce “will erode over time.” The loss, he believes, will come from a depletion of the social capital, or the ongoing relationships with prospects and clients, that had been built up in the months preceding the world’s lockdowns. He also cited limited abilities to learn on the job in remote environments and the loss of the ability to “relate to each other” cultivated by sharing spaces day in and day out.

Given these concerns, organizations should consider how the long game will play out. If the workforce is literally distributed around the world, the hybrid office/WFH model of course doesn’t work. Leaders should consider the value of adding in-person retreats to the calendar, as well as implementing a blend of communication methods for remote work -- voice calls, live forums, and one-on-one meetings, to name a few. Here again, it’s likely that certain personalities and certain teams and positions will be better suited to indefinite remote work than others. Understanding an organization’s people and its team-by-team dynamics are vital in making these decisions.

Moving forward: do what’s best for you

The passing of the first acute phase of the 2020 pandemic brings an era of decisions and adjustments. By continuing to prioritize candidate and employee engagement and recognizing the need for customized solutions based on personality and soft skills, HR leaders can move toward a new era with the benefit of new wisdom and resilience. Working within the guidelines of public health measures, there’s no one right way to move forward.


To learn how personality data and insights can help your team in these difficult decisions, connect with Traitify.


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