Remote Work May Have Shifted the Workplace Forever
Workplaces may never be the same.
With the partial reopening of shared spaces that have been vacated or sharply limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, Pacific University alumni who are managers and employees have begun to reset their expectations about work. Their choices are complicated by the evolving guidance on social distancing and wearing masks.
While nobody knows yet how soon it will definitively be safe for large groups of people to gather indoors, some themes are emerging.
Managers are recognizing that many of their employees, especially younger ones, have grown accustomed to working remotely and are resistant to the idea of returning to the office full-time. And many employees are weighing how to balance family time, childcare, commuting and the wishes of their employers.
“It’s like a life-is-short mentality,” said Anna Meiners MA '11, who is director of account services at Cascade Centers. Cascade Centers operates employee assistance programs, mental health assessments and services, organizational training and other services bridging employers and their employees.
Employers have seen over the last 18 months that their workers can be productive outside the constraints of the traditional office. As they contemplate a return to normal, many are offering flexible shifts, more telework, offices with more space for individual workers, and even better benefits and pay.
In some businesses that were hard-hit by the pandemic, such as food service, many workers left and haven’t returned. Employers in those businesses have responded by raising pay and offering bonuses or improved benefits.
“I think employers are being forced to look at some of their policies, regarding flexible work arrangements, compensation, benefits, worklife balance.”
—Anna Meiners MA '11
“I think employers are being forced to look at some of their policies, regarding flexible work arrangements, compensation, benefits, worklife balance,” Meiners said. “There was a necessity with schools and childcare situations the way they were this year for employers to do something different … We’ll see if that continues.”
Part of the recalibration of the workplace is a wider recognition of the psychological toll taken by the pandemic and the wide range of political and cultural concerns that have gripped America over the last 18 months, from the presidential election to the protests over racial justice. Extreme weather events — ice storms, wildfires, heat waves — have added to the anxiety. All of this has caused managers to think more broadly about their employees’ emotional health and psychological wellbeing.
“There’s a huge demand for behavioral health support and recognizing mental health needs of employees,” Meiners said. “There’s way more conversation, less stigma and recognition of mental health as part of our overall wellbeing.”
For some, the pandemic has led to an even more radical rethinking about work. Some have launched businesses; others have decided not to go back to the office; and others are willing to take greater risks, knowing how suddenly life can change.
“I would hope to never be back in the office full time,” Ashwini Baitmangalkar MA '12, a licensed professional counselor at Kaiser Permanente, said in an email. “This past year has given me so much time with my family. Many of us pursue jobs and careers so we can give our families comfortable lives. I just realized how meaningless that was without having actual time with them.”
Elizabeth (Johnson) Gentzkow MA '12, too, is a licensed professional counselor in private practice, and she’s also an organizational consultant. She’s taken both businesses online full time, though she says she expects to do some in-person work for her organizational clients. But when and how often will depend on circumstances, she said.
“For now, I will remain online and remote until I feel more comfortable with COVID infection stats,” she said in an email. “I had a baby five months ago, so we are still choosing our in-person activities carefully … Since remote work has been easy in what I do, I’m not worried about returning to in person any time soon.”
The pandemic sent Jessie Wachter ’03 of Denver down an unexpected track. She was laid off along with many of her coworkers on the eve of the pandemic by a company that foresaw a business decline. She responded to being out of work by applying for other jobs, and also by starting her own company that marketed small tote cases to carry face masks. That company, JW Tiny Totes, sold tote bags, but sales petered out after the holidays.
This summer, she went back to work for a startup company that markets travel services to companies, choosing its part-time offer over an offer for a full-time job from a larger, more established company. The pandemic, in other words, led her to take a larger risk with her career.
“I’m really, really excited about the decision,” she said in a Zoom interview. “I stand to grow so much. I’m doing things I haven’t done before, but I’ve known I’ve had the capacity to do.”
Years from now, we’ll understand more fully how the great pandemic of 2020-21 has changed the world of work, but one thing that’s clear is this: There’s really no such thing as “business as usual.” ■
This story appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Pacific magazine. For more stories, visit pacificu.edu/magazine.