What will working from home — or work — look like beyond the pandemic?

The first business quarter of 2021 is almost halfway complete, and organizations across sectors are still looking forward to the day they can bring employees back into their traditional workspaces.

The question leaders are still asking is, what will “working from work” look like? 

“I think everybody wants to get back, at least to more ‘at the office’ capacity,” says Mark Schmidt, founder of Bizstream, a software development company with 20-25 full-time employees that moved into an expanded space the first week of February 2020.

“You can’t really plan for a global pandemic,” says Schmidt. “We’re huge on culture, huge on the team, huge on collaboration. We definitely feel and see a hit on that.”

Adapted to operating virtually

The business world and employees have adapted to using virtual meetings and technology to effectively run their organizations. The constant worry for leaders has been the damage of culture, which isn’t objectively measured.

“Our approach is to mix it up and focus on the future as we grow, and recognize that we do have a hybrid team and we need to learn how to build and maintain our culture without being in person,” says Barry Rice, chief operating officer at Worksighted, an IT support and services company based in Holland.

Businesses that don’t require in-person work have been cautious to transition back, due to safety concerns, reduced infrastructure expenses, and improved work efficiencies. 

Schmidt says he has more issues with his employees stepping away from work rather than poor performance.

“Leaders realized how they were not delegating and supporting effectively prior to COVID, and everyone is actually being more productive (at home),” says Scott Patchin, leadership coach, author, and certified EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) implementer.

Maintaining culture

Both Rice and Schmidt say that open and honest communication is critical to maintaining a positive work-from-home or hybrid culture. Touching base daily, keeping cameras on, incorporating non-work games and peer recognition systems such as Bonusly or Bravo, and safe outdoor events are all ways their companies have maintained culture. Schmidt and his leadership team even hand-delivered gift baskets to all of their employees over the holidays.
BizStream's 2020 holiday card
“While we miss the days of being able to gather in our offices, we also see it as an opportunity to grow in new ways and expand the company vision,” says Rice.

But for industries that have been required to have in-person employees — such as manufacturing, construction, food, entertainment, transportation, and logistics — the transition to a hybrid system has been difficult.

“People began to think differently, to figure out how to do their jobs from home,” says Luanne Verner, director of finance, human resources, and IT at Holland’s EBW Electronics. “But, from what I’ve heard from many staff members, the law of diminishing returns kicked in and, admittedly, they began to be less productive at home.”

The stress factor

Even something as simple as daily shop floor meetings has become a safety challenge, and EPW had to adapt to virtual meetings, employee Facebook groups, and physical memos to communicate effectively. The stress on employees required to return to in-person work has led EBW to lean more on the systems they offered prior to the pandemic, such as counseling and support from the Lakeshore Employer Resource Network.

“Now that everyone is back, we found that people need to vent their frustrations about the COVID safety protocols that strain everyone,” says Verner.

But even with the challenges of in-person work, the opportunities of the new business world will give employers more tools to support their employees and improve their cultures.

“It has been a positive influence, allowing us to be in attendance at our meetings even on days we are out of the office,” says Verner. “We have also taken advantage of video conferences to attend a lot more educational events.”Bizstream celebrates International LEGO day.

Pressure on for decisions

With companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Spotify, and Salesforce making sweeping announcements about their future working options, the pressure for smaller companies to make decisions is looming as vaccine availability becomes wider and COVID-19 cases decline.

Schmidt says that, over time, midsize and small businesses will return to normal in-person working conditions, with work-from-home flexibility, something that Bizstream offered before the pandemic.

“Nobody is trying to guess what lies beyond 2021,” Patchin says. “The strength of a lot of smaller organizations is in the team cohesiveness and the informal learning, mentoring, and teamwork that happens when people are around each other.”

Culture a determining factor

Schmidt and Rice both recognize the challenge and opportunity of recruiting employees that now aren’t tied to geography for work. In the past year, Worksighted has hired employees from across the country and expects the trend to continue as they diversify talent.

The crystal ball for working structures is still unclear two months into 2021, but with more economic growth, increased safety, and proven technology resources, the “work from” decision will be determined by how organizations want their culture to develop beyond the pandemic.

“I am 100% confident that the teams that keep their planning and executing rhythm will be the ones that will win in 2021 because I saw it work in the second half of 2020,” Patchin says.

Read more articles by Luke Ferris.