More than a year and a half since most white-collar offices sent employees home due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, business experts say few of those workplaces will return to normal.
Many employees — and even employers — thought the pandemic would lead to just a few weeks of remote work, but the persistent virus kept pushing back planned return dates for office workers.
The pandemic became an unintentional pilot for remote work programs at offices. Forced to adapt to the health crisis, employers adopted new software to allow employees to sign into internal programs from home. They also adapted traditional workplace practices to the digital environment — hosting video calls for meetings, using messaging programs to talk instead of popping by a co-worker’s desk, even staging virtual happy hour gatherings.
As the coronavirus rages on, some employers don’t necessarily think they need to bring their office workers back — at least not in the way they used to do their jobs.
“Increased flexibility is definitely going to be important going forward,” said Robert Norcross, Zions Bank executive vice president and regional director of human resources.
A flexible work future
Many offices will change the status quo of employment, said Ben Hart, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, even if it isn’t the drastic shift to permanent remote work that some predicted early in the pandemic.
“We’re going to see some structural changes,” Hart said. “But this is going to be more of a subtle evolution than a revolution.”
Flexible or hybrid models would allow employees to work some days remotely and other days in the office, either on a schedule or at will. This approach to work would benefit employees who feel there are fewer distractions working remotely, Norcross said, while also maintaining the benefits of in-person collaboration when needed.
“Our culture of connection and teamwork,” he added, “can’t be replaced completely digitally.”
While Norcross said more remote work, and even work from rural areas, could be part of the staffing structure in the future, employees would likely need to at least live near a Zions Bank branch.
Not all employees like working from home. In fact, Hart said, many still want the option to come into an office, even if they don’t want to work there five days a week.
Transitioning to remote work
Many employers allowed nonessential personnel to work from home beginning in March 2020, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Suddenly, most employees who could do their work from home were allowed and even encouraged to do so.
COVID-19 pushed businesses to accept a new type of work environment, Hart said, which may help their bottom lines and their workforces in the long run.
“It’s not just about cost savings,” Hart said. “It’s about productivity in some cases and employee happiness.”
With the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, some businesses began planning for a return to the workplace, but the slow adoption of shots and the more contagious delta variant halted many of those plans.
Qualtrics had planned to call employees back to the office in September, spokesperson MJ Henshaw said.
“Rather than set a new date, we have continued to welcome employees to our offices if they want to come in, and feel comfortable,” Henshaw explained, “but delayed setting a definite reopening date, given the uncertainty over when that will be safe for everyone.”
Many other businesses, including Zions Bank, also allow employees to work from the office if they choose.
Zions is looking toward the future of its corporate office, Norcross said, planning for integrating more flexible and collaborative spaces and equipping employees with cameras and headphones so they can attend meetings with employees working remotely.
While adapting to remote work during the pandemic was “one of the greatest successes” of Zions Bank, Norcross said, many employees — from bank tellers to employees managing the computer servers — held essential, in-person jobs.
“We owe them,” he said, “an absolute debt of gratitude.”