What will work look like when some employees return to the office and some stay permanently remote? Making plans while aiming at a moving target has not been easy, but associations are putting pieces in place for a revised workplace, perhaps forever changed by the pandemic. Here is a glimpse of what’s happening so far.
The past year has forced people to re-evaluate a lot of preconceived notions about how they work. In many association headquarters, physical workspaces were stuck in a hierarchical grid, with offices surrounding a perimeter and cubicles filling in the middle. Commuting two hours a day was normal for many employees in major cities. Meanwhile, remote work policies were often inconsistent, and work-from-home arrangements were treated like a coveted prize in a contest with unwritten rules for entry.
But, like many things during the past year, preconceived notions were no match for reality.
A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, associations are contending with how, when, and—in some cases, whether—to return to the office. Productivity has increased, employees prefer the flexibility of remote work, and with less need for office space, many associations are calculating the cost savings of a significantly reduced footprint.
Remote Work Converts
Before the pandemic, the American Industrial Hygiene Association allowed employees to work remotely one to three days a week, but AIHA CEO Larry Sloan, CAE, was not comfortable going further. All that has changed.
“I really did a 180 on allowing folks to expand their teleworking,” he says. “I quickly became a convert.”
After witnessing how well his staff worked remotely, Sloan realized that even after the pandemic is over, AIHA could loosen up its teleworking policy and allow employees to work remotely full time. The staff response when this option was announced last fall was “phenomenal,” he says. “People were just ecstatic.”
Jim Penrod, CAE, executive director of the American Association of Veterinary State Boards (AAVSB) had many conversations with his staff after they shifted to remote work. Only one employee out of 21 said he wanted to come back to the office full time.
“They prefer the virtual work environment,” Penrod says. “It allows them to be more focused and get more accomplished.”
At AIHA, more remote work options meant Sloan could consider downsizing the organization’s office space. With a lease that will be up at the end of the year, he started researching other real estate options in and around Falls Church, Virginia, where the office is located. He focused on moving to a “hoteling” approach where staff would share workstations and be present in the office on a rotating basis.
Sloan and his team ran the concept by the AIHA board and executive committee last fall, explaining that with the new remote work option they could cut their 17,000-square-foot office space in half. That would save hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new lease beginning in 2022—money that could be used for program development and new staff rather than overhead. The board approved the plan.
Because employees indicated their overwhelming preference for remote work, AAVSB will also make changes to its office space, Penrod says. The new space will be designed primarily for group work and meetings, with a few cubicle spaces for any staff who want to work in the office on a more regular basis and some shared desks for hoteling. Partitions will be removed in the open space to make it more conducive to group work. Soft surfaces like couches and comfortable chairs will be brought for in-person brainstorming exercises and team meetings.
A Phased Approach
Returning to the office won’t be like flipping a switch. Even as more people are vaccinated against COVID-19, employees’ different experiences with the pandemic are likely to produce various comfort levels with the idea of going back out into the world.
Striking a balance for employees is paramount for leaders at the Center for Health Affairs. Realizing that staff members will feel differently about returning to the office, CHA focused on its core values to help guide its policy, says Lesley Forneris, CHA’s people officer.
“We’re not only looking at it from the physical safety of our employees, but also the mental health and well-being of our employees,” she says.
CHA has been seeking feedback from staff though pulse check-in surveys to gauge how they feel about returning. “We all left at the same time, but we’re certainly not going to return at the same time—or in the same way,” she says.
A remote workforce was not new to CHA. With a staff of roughly 120 employees, some positions were 100 percent remote before the pandemic, so the technology and infrastructure were in place to support it. When CHA made the switch to all-remote work last year, employees “overwhelmingly” said how much they liked it, Forneris says.
She adds that CHA’s employee engagement scores are the highest they have been in four years, making a significant leap from 73 percent in 2019 to 83 percent in 2020. That is not entirely because of remote work, she says, but it is a factor.
Given that success, CHA leaders expect that some employees will continue to work remotely even after the pandemic is over. “We’re very comfortable having some sort of hybrid workforce,” Forneris says.
With a new lease set to begin in 2022, AIHA expects to cut its office space in half. AIHA’s current office space is 17,000 square feet.
After staying completely virtual for the first quarter of 2021, CHA will offer opportunities for groups of volunteers to slowly come back to the office starting this spring, capping the number at no more than 25 people in the building at a time. Leadership will continue to monitor the number of COVID-19 cases, especially in Ohio, where CHA is located.
“We really have to see where the numbers are to make firmer timelines,” Forneris says. “There are a lot of variables.”
One challenge will be to avoid creating two cultures, with one close-knit group working in the office and another group of remote employees feeling disconnected, she says. Similarly, CHA management will need to ensure that employees who come into the office don’t get more exposure to opportunities to participate in projects and initiatives, or more face time with managers and leaders, while people who work remotely are inadvertently left out.
Plans Amid Uncertainty
The School Nutrition Association does not have an official date for returning to the office, but that decision will be based on two criteria, says Rhea Steele, CAE, SNA’s chief of staff. One is widespread distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines, and the second is more availability of effective treatments for the virus, similar to treatments that are available for the flu.
In the interim, to address the needs of staff members who do need to return to the office for certain tasks, Steele’s team has released safety protocols, using the building’s guidelines as a baseline. Staff members must complete an online form, two days in advance, requesting permission to access the building. They must indicate the time of day they plan to be there, what areas of the office they will visit, and what tasks they plan to perform. With 90 percent of staff in workstations instead of offices, employees in adjacent workstations are not permitted to go in at the same time.
The online form goes to Steele and the office manager, who review it to make sure it is a reasonable request for entering the building. On the day of the visit, the staff member is required to fill out an online form listing their temperature and answering standard wellness questions. They must message the office manager when they arrive at the building and when they leave so Steele can keep records and conduct contact tracing, if necessary.
When eventually the time comes to reopen, SNA will have a flexible policy on returning to the office, she says. Even if many people are back in the office and just a few remain remote, staff meetings will remain virtual to avoid a culture where remote employees feel left out.
“We want to maintain collegiality,” Steele says. “We don’t want people to feel excluded because they’re not able to be in the office.”
SNA is also trying to navigate employee preferences. Some employees haven’t responded as well as others to the remote environment, and they’re eager to return. Steele wants to make sure there is a safe space for them when they’re ready to come back, “but the people this is working well for, let’s let them run with it.”
Although the details of SNA’s plan are still emerging, “I am anticipating our workforce will remain hybrid for quite a period of time,” she says.