How the workplace has changed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic

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INDIANAPOLIS — Saturday marks one year since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the State of Indiana.

Over the last nearly 365 days, different work sectors have been significantly impacted by the pandemic, many being challenged to navigate the world of remote working in businesses that may have never done that prior.

Although there is no predicting the future, both Jeremy York, President and CEO of InvigorateHR, and Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, Associate Professor of Management at the IU Kelley School of Business, agree that the workforce may never fully return to what it looked like pre-pandemic.

“I think it’s very unlikely we’ll just go back to how things were,” said Gonzalez-Mulé, “by how things were, I mean, everybody just goes to an office and that’s how things were for a white-collar job at least.”

“It was very challenging at first because a lot of people thought that perhaps working remotely or working from home didn’t fit their business model or it wouldn’t work for their organization,” said York. “They had to pivot and adapt fairly quickly to understand that, hey you know, the show must go on and we have to continue serving those people that we were serving prior to the pandemic.”

York and Gonzalez-Mulé said many organizations have reported success in the way they’ve made the switch to full or part-time remote working over the last year.

“Employers are realizing people can work from home and be effective in doing that,” said Gonzalez-Mulé.

“What we’ve seen in working with a lot of our clients is that organizations have found a great deal of increased productivity with people working from home,” York shared. “It may not work for every organization, but a lot of them are seeing that, hey it’s working for us even though we thought it wouldn’t be.”

York said the challenge is now deciding where businesses go from here and what the “new normal” for their workplaces will look like. It’s a conversation he’s had with organizations and employers his company works with.

York said employers are asking themselves the questions: “Do we bring people back into the office? Do we allow flexible work schedules? Do we go back to the way things were?”

“I think a lot of employers are asking themselves that question and saying, ‘I don’t think we can,’” York said.

The two men said they believe there will be various models in the workplace that many employers will consider moving forward.

“I don’t think we’ll see sort of a bounce-back, everybody go back to the office and pretend nothing happened,” Gonzalez-Mulé shared.

“So, kind of on one extreme you’ll have the work from home model where companies just shut down the offices and everybody works from home,” said Gonzalez-Mulé. “I think most businesses will go to some sort of hybrid model where people will kind of come in two or three days a week and work in the office.”

Gonzalez-Mulé also said he believes there are benefits of being co-located in the workplace, especially in an industry that requires a lot of creative work and collaboration.

Both of these business experts bring up the topic of mental health in the workplace and how having the opportunity to keep employees engaged in some form is something that many workplaces have discussed.

“The downside of working from home is that people tend to feel socially isolated, they might feel disconnected from what’s going on in the office,” said Gonzalez-Mulé. “I think those hybrid models kind of offer a best of both worlds type scenario and it also just saves companies money, right, you don’t need as much office space if you don’t have everybody needing to come in every day.”

“From an employer’s perspective, it’s important to keep kind of a finger on the pulse of your employees and it’s easier to lose touch when you’re not co-located,” shared Gonzalez-Mulé.

He said, “so I think managing those aspects in kind of the post-COVID world will be important.”

“We do have to kind of keep in mind about people’s mental health and the importance of having that face-to-face connection or employee’s real-person connection,” said York.

York said the pandemic has also opened up the conversation of sick leave policies more with employers.

“I do think it has caused employers to look at their sick leave policies and encouraging people not to come to work when they’re sick.”

“I think, you know, there’s a cultural shift as it relates to work. A lot of times people are brought up of, oh it’s a good work ethic and I’ll go to work if I’m not well,” he said. “Now we realize that that maybe is not necessarily acquainted with work ethic because of this pandemic we went through and how important it is not to get other people sick.”

He said the pandemic also raises the importance of companies looking at paid sick leave for their employees.

“Especially the number of people who were impacted and especially a lot of workers who don’t earn a lot of money and you might live paycheck to paycheck or struggle financially,” he explained.

With remote working normalized in many business operations, experts say they believe it will be a part of the long-term future in many workplaces.

“We know that the future of work is going to change and what I hear most of this happening is some type of hybrid that allows employees to be able to have a flexible work schedule,” York shared. “It really does focus more about productivity and about people actually getting work done rather than whether they’re truly, physically in the office.”

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