By Jane Randel

The workplace post COVID-19

When my father’s mother died, we found plastic bags within plastic bags within plastic bags all rubber banded together. A lot of them. There was a lot of time spent unwrapping them all to see what was inside, but in the end, it was nothing more than the bags and the rubber bands. She also hoarded Sweet & Low and saved the rolls from restaurants, and reused tea bags — all directly related to the trauma of living through the Great Depression.

My grandmother was not alone, as James C. Cobb noted in his April 2020 piece in Time Magazine: “[the children and grandchildren of those who lived through it will certainly remember their parents or grandparents’] steadfast resistance to purchasing any but the cheapest consumer items for themselves and their adamant refusal to toss perfectly good aluminum foil after a single use.”

As we enter the second pandemic fall, albeit with vaccines and significantly greater understanding around the virus and how to contain it, I began to wonder, what actions or habits would stay with people once we ultimately put it behind us, both from a societal point-of-view and a personal one.

For me, it’s as mundane as dousing my hands in hand sanitizer the second I get back in the car after being out, even if I didn’t touch anything. That, and having copious amounts of toilet paper, napkins, and paper towels on hand at all times, but clearly there are more widespread changes across just about every area of life.

Wanting to hear from others, I asked more than 400 senior communications executives what they thought the impact would be professionally, personally, and societally. The response was robust — so much so that this will be the first in a series looking at Pandemic Hangovers, with the initial focus on how our professional lives will change.

Flexibility & Intentionality

“There is no such thing as normal work hours,” said Anne McCarthy, Founder and President, Westmeath Global Communications, with just about everyone agreeing.

Beyond that, where people work and when people work has changed dramatically, practically overnight. “Companies that never thought it was possible to work outside an office are now hiring remote workers everywhere,” said Marta Newhart, Chief Communications & Brand Officer, Westinghouse.

Karen Van Bergen, EVP, Dean of Omnicom University and Chief Environmental Sustainability Officer, Omnicom, noted: “We will not go back to office life as it was before — the idea of being judged by how long you would be in the office seems even more ridiculous.”

Intentionality is the corollary to flexibility. People don’t want to be consumed by their jobs.

Bill Price, VP of Corporate Communications, Zoetis, said: “I work in a basement office and don’t bring my laptop or ‘work’ upstairs to the kitchen, living room, etc., anymore. That space needs to be my break and stay a refuge. This practice helps me be intentional with my time and maintain some balance.”

Now, leaders are not only making time for their own family and self-care, but they also understand their teams need the same latitude. Cindy Leggett-Flynn, EVP, Global Communications, PVH Corp, commented: “I think from this time, I will always be much more open to flexing the workday around my team’s personal lives, including working from home.”

One executive put it another way: “I anticipate that how we use time will be much more flexible in the future. For example, pre-pandemic, I would exercise immediately upon waking up to ensure I left the house before the traffic built up. Now, I sometimes don’t exercise until mid-morning because that’s when the day’s schedule best accommodates activity. Similarly, I expect people to commute to the office when they need to arrive for their first meeting, and not before then, again to avoid traffic. Why fight traffic to arrive at 9 am when the first meeting is at 11 am? And why head home during rush hour if your last meeting ends at 2 pm? Leave then, save time, and work from home the rest of the day.”

Craig Rothenberg, Founder and CEO of Rothenberg Strategic Communications, Inc., summed it up well: “Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z are already taking stock in what truly matters to them in an employer-employee relationship, and what they’re willing to accept in terms of that engagement. As a result, I believe that organizations of all kinds will operate with a different kind of ‘contract,’ sets of guiding principles and norms that pay far closer attention to the needs and wants of their workforces, ultimately recognizing that their talent, and the ability to attract and retain the best, is job #1.”

The Technology Factor

Of course, this kind of flexibility would not even be possible without having the right technology in place at the right time.

“It’s not that the technology did not exist — it was the dramatic change in mindset that Covid forced on us,” said Peter McKillop, Founder and Editor, Climate & Capital Media. “The reality of massive disruption on a global scale, while at the same time, the ability to digitally connect and continue to conduct business as if the person was at a desk next to you, is profoundly disrupting every element of business culture.”

Zoom fatigue aside, videoconferencing has opened a whole new world. “I think Zoom has/will become the default tool for us over more traditional phone conferencing tools, and I expect many more hybrid events that allow for live and virtual participation. I know that I am being more intentional in choosing what I participate in in-person and what I can connect to virtually,” noted Shayna Chabner, Chief Communications Officer, Caltech.

Commenting on the advantages of working with clients on video, Maryanne Rainone, Client Partner/COO, Heyman Associates, had this to say: “It used to be you met clients once or twice in person, and then conducted all follow up meetings on the phone. They are all on video now…You just develop better relationships and more human ones, even now that there is a mix of people in the office and still remote.”

Looking beyond just the workplace, Corey DuBrowa, VP Global Communications and Public Affairs, Google/Alphabet, noted that his company’s goal during this time is “to ensure that the benefits of technology can be shared as widely and equitably as possible. If we can do that, then this period will be remembered not as the end of the world, but the beginning of a world that works better for everyone.”

Increased Humanity

The sense that you have to keep your personal and professional lives completely separate, is another thing disrupted by COVID-19.

Dr. David Ballard, psychologist and organizational consultant, noted that the “inevitable blurring of work-life boundaries…[has] humanized our colleagues and made us more aware and accepting of their other life demands. We’ve tolerated and even chuckled at interruptions by children, pets and Amazon deliveries, while still remaining productive and keeping our organizations humming along.”

Charlene Wheeless, Executive Coach, agreed, noting that Zoom and other video conferencing platforms allowed us to “learn more about our colleagues simply by being on Zoom and seeing people in their homes, or as I like to say, their ‘natural habitat.’ That brought a degree of humanity and personal connection to work that didn’t exist before. I hope that as people return to the office, they remember that the people they work with have back stories beyond what they bring to the office.”

An increased focus on humanity can affect the workplace in other ways, too. Chris LaPlaca, SVP, Corporate Communications, ESPN, shared that the company “changed the tone of our internal communications…we shifted almost immediately into a very natural, very genuine, very informal tone in all our internal comms. And it was noticed immediately by everyone. Notes and texts came pouring in. The approach resonated…and still does.”

Jack Bergen, Managing Director, Bergen Partners, put it simply: “I’ve replaced the greeting ‘How are you doing?’ with ‘I hope you and your family are healthy’ because the former is a throw away cliche, and the latter more sincere and heartfelt.”

The Workplace of the Future

What is less clear is the impact fewer days in the office or having all remote teams will have on corporate culture, not to mention the “information osmosis” that happens just from being together — hallway conversations, last minute invites to meetings and so on. Regardless, this is just the start of an ongoing evolution that will be driven by necessity, yes, but also by the incoming workforce. This article in the New York Times spells out the differences already apparent, with many more to come.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the series focusing on the changes to people’s personal lives as a result of COVID-19.