Return to work?

A recent U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey reported by reveals that teleworkers created by the COVID-19 pandemic are slowing returning to the workplace, although nearly 8 percent remain working remotely.

While this trend isn’t surprising, the short-term disruption to the nation’s workforce caused by the pandemic has long term implications.

Let’s look at a few of the issues facing both employees and employers as they attempt to reinvent today’s new work environment.

  • Health officials tell us that the pandemic is not over, that mutations of COVID-19 will continue to infect people and a return to precautionary measures might needed again in the future.

The deadly virus might be with us indefinitely and will need to be treated much like other influenza outbreaks.

This means that employers will need to develop long-term measures to ensure a healthy workplace, such as upgrading building ventilation systems, increasing the space between work stations, installing physical barriers between workers, sanitizing work areas and determining how much office and production space will be needed in the future.

  • While the employer might wish to summon the remote worker back to the cubicle, the employee might not be eager to fill up the gas tank with today’s high-priced gas and rush back to the office.

The telework tour of duty has provided some unexpected benefits. In addition to reduced transportation costs and a less regimented workday, some employees have found that at-home casual attire (think pajama bottoms and slippers) is cheaper than the pricey business causal wardrobe expected at the office.

Additionally, the degree of separation provided by telecommuting when faced with a demanding boss or unpleasant colleague might be another unexpected benefit of such work, even for those feeling the effects of Zoom fatigue.

  • Some employers have offered employees a hybrid work system, rotating two to three days each between home and work.

The typical pre-pandemic “hot desk” system where multiple employees share a common work space will be problematic, given the current requirement for a sterile work facility. Compressed work weeks and extended work days will be seen as part of the new workplace. The wise employer will invite employee participation when creating the new work setting.

  • For the first time in anyone’s memory, the worker has a substantial advantage in the employee-employer relationship.

Employment ads are literally begging for workers to fill empty slots. An applicant’s ability to negotiate wages and working conditions has never been better.

Organizations faced with a historically tight labor market are finding it necessary to offer enhanced compensation and working conditions to keep employees on the payroll and to attract those people sitting on the sidelines and reluctant to return to work. Clearly, both job seekers and employees have an unapparelled opportunity to set the terms of employment.

  • While the most likely beneficiary of remote work will be the highly educated, professional employee, the blue-collar production worker can expect collateral benefits from the restructuring of work activity.

In addition to better pay, employer sensitivity to the worker’s preferences and needs could lead to increased job satisfaction and a more stable workforce. Employers that treat their workers as valuable partners and integral to the success of the enterprise will have a greater chance of thriving.

Those companies viewing their workforce as a necessary expense and whose members are to be regarded as interchangeable and expendable, will likely be less competitive.