Setting a course for the new normal
Charting the future of remote work, productivity and health and safety
5 minute read
Businesses contacted by Ipsos and Crain’s Content Studio are facing a landscape that’s been forever altered by COVID-19. While a large majority of businesses (72%) contacted expect to return to usual operations within the next six months to two years, it’s not always clear what normal operations will look like.
In the meantime, many businesses interviewed have identified challenges that will shape the course they take in the coming months. According to a recent survey of business leaders conducted by Crain’s Content Studio, Ipsos and Bank of America, nearly three out of 10 businesses contacted said keeping workers productive is among the top challenges they face in the pandemic environment. Meanwhile, 28% businesses interviewed also cited maintaining the stability of their workforce as a top challenge in the pandemic environment.
To address these issues, businesses face three key challenges: supporting company culture in a more geographically distributed workplace; keeping workers from burning out; and creating health, safety and vaccination policies that keep workers feeling safe as they return to the office.
Maintaining corporate culture remotely
Though a vaccine rollout means many businesses are considering returning to an office environment, not all companies expect their employees to return to the office five days a week after the pandemic is over. Nearly half of those businesses surveyed (46%) indicate they will make remote work a permanent option for roles that allow it, and 43% say they intend to reconfigure worksites or offices to accommodate a new post-pandemic normal.
For most companies, transitioning to remote work took place in the early days of the pandemic. In many cases, dealing with the human consequences of remote employees remains a work in progress, however. In particular, companies have had to come up with creative solutions to maintain a cohesive culture. “We had to figure out how to create a cultural environment where no one felt isolated and everyone felt as connected to their teams as possible,” says Amy Binder, CEO of communications and consulting firm RF/Binder, headquartered in New York City.
One tactic Binder pursued was adding community-building exercises to weekly online staff meetings. A team member would read a question such as, “What song brings to life how you’re feeling right now?” to prompt employees to open up and talk to each other. “We wanted everybody in our team to feel that we were there to support them and that they could feel comfortable sharing their feelings,” says Binder.
Implementing structured touch points with employees is key, says Matt McCambridge, CEO of Eden Health in New York City. In addition to daily check-ins to keep employees informed about what the company is doing, Eden Health has created spaces for employees to connect through a fitness group, a racial justice book club and open discussions about current events moderated by the company’s director of psychiatry and head of talent.
“We’re really focused on reinforcing culture every step of the way and creating an environment where people are getting communicated to frequently, and feel connected.”
While creative solutions are an important part of maintaining company culture, a renewed focus on training can be equally critical, according to Clark Twiddy, Founder and President of Twiddy & Company, a vacation rental company based in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. “In the past, employees learned from being around other people and getting constant access to role models who are modeling the culture of the organization,” he says. “Now not everybody has that.” That’s why his firm is prioritizing training employees about company culture and history alongside details about its operations.
Keeping burnout at bay
Remote work leads to another key challenge: Averting the phenomenon known as “Zoom fatigue.” Video calls, chat applications and other remote tools are critical in a dispersed office, yet the intense concentration required to use them can leave employees drained and less productive by the end of the day.
Previously, coffee breaks or watercooler conversations with coworkers helped give workers’ minds a breather. Employees need to be careful to get the same kind of breaks and mental stimulation when working at home, says Sue Duckett, Executive Vice President of Franklin Capital in Highland Park, Illinois. Duckett’s company reinforces the importance of taking breaks, going for walks and even chatting with colleagues. “We’re focusing a lot on work-life balance,” she says.
Companies may also help employees fight Zoom fatigue with strategies such as avoiding multi-tasking on videoconferences, making virtual social events opt-in and switching to phone calls or email, rather than video, when possible.
Implementing new health and vaccination policies
Addressing health and safety concerns will be top-of-mind for businesses returning partially or fully to the office environment. In fact, 60% of businesses contacted have already made workforce adjustments for safety and wellbeing, while 33% plan to do so, according to the survey. “Our number-one priority is making sure that our employees are safe and healthy and that they're comfortable coming back into work,” says Katherine Zabloudil, CEO of consumer products manufacturer Vertical Collective, headquartered in Redondo Beach, California.
Yet, when it comes to requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, opinions differ.
“Everybody has to make their own decisions, and everybody has different beliefs, so I would not mandate anything,” says Alison Bernstein, Founder and President of Suburban Jungle, a real estate advisory service headquartered in New York City. “We would continue safety protocols as needed, assuming that we don't know whether people have been vaccinated or not.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Zabloudil describes herself as “bullish” when it comes to the coronavirus vaccine. “We are going to implement a vaccine policy, so it's just a matter of when we can make that happen,” she says.
Despite the adaptations businesses have made over the past year, the future remains uncertain. “It’s unknown how many of these changes truly are permanent,” says Zabloudil. Businesses will likely continue to lean on cultures of innovation and flexibility as the work environment continues to evolve.
Ipsos and Crain Communications conducted the Bank of America Better Business Banking Report survey online between October 13th – November 20th, 2020 and January 4th – January 15th, 2021. Responses were collected using an online sample of business decision makers in the United States with annual revenue between $5 million and $99,999,999. From October 13th – November 20th, 2020 Crain’s contacted 73 business decision makers using a propriety list in Chicago, New York, Detroit, Boston, Minneapolis and Houston. From October 13th – November 20th, 2020 Ipsos contacted 751 business decision makers using a pre-recruited online sample of small business owners from across the country outside of the following markets: Seattle, Minneapolis/St Paul, Washington DC, San Francisco/Silicon Valley, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Detroit, Charlotte, San Diego, Boston, Orlando, Phoenix, New York, Miami, Houston, Philadelphia. From January 4th – January 15th, 2021 Ipsos contacted 400 business decision makers using a pre-recruited online sample of small business owners from within the following markets: Seattle, Minneapolis/St Paul, Washington DC, San Francisco/Silicon Valley, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Detroit, Charlotte, San Diego, Boston, Orlando, Phoenix, New York, Miami, Houston, Philadelphia. The final results for the study are not weighted.