The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally shifted traditional views of how and where we work, forging a new path toward increased remote and hybrid working environments. New challenges and opportunities are presenting themselves as organizations and their people adjust to changing workplace norms, with some teams staying fully or partially remote and others re-imagining what it means to work on-site at an office. Regardless of industry, DePaul alumni and faculty experts agree that one size does not fit all when it comes to determining the best way forward.
Remote work—a trend accelerated
“A significant percentage of people worldwide worked remotely pre-pandemic, so the idea of having a portion of your workforce remote is not a new concept,” explains Jaclyn Jensen, associate dean for student success, who teaches in DePaul’s human resource programs, including a new Executive Master of Science in Human Resource Management. “What has happened is that a much broader swath of employees has experienced the opportunity, so for them and for their managers, it is new.”
The pandemic has accelerated the trend of remote work and has created a values shift among employees in terms of what they want and need from an employer.
“We’ve been seeing significant turnover in the job market as people are seeking more flexibility and autonomy,” Jensen says. “Employees want to feel valued by their employer as a whole person and not feel like a faceless, nameless contributor lumped into a group. Organizations have to think about how to stay competitive in order to retain and attract talent.”
A new dynamic in the manager-employee relationship has also emerged as the pandemic forced organizations to let go of certain aspects of control over their workforce. Trust, autonomy and accountability have come to the forefront. “If communication was important before, it is even more pivotal now,” says Jensen, who advises managers and employees who are staying fully or partially remote to find innovative ways to create regular touchpoints, set boundaries and expectations, and establish a clear sense of goals and accountability.
“There are strategies to help teams build connections and a sense of trust, comradery and collaboration that can still be implemented in a remote or hybrid work situation,” Jensen says. “It just requires organizations to take a step back, think about lessons learned from working remotely through a pandemic and consider feedback from key stakeholders. They should also consider the nature of the work that needs to get done and allow teams to make the right choices for themselves.”
Employee engagement in the virtual/hybrid workplace
Expectations around getting work done have become far more important than where people are physically located. Employees are more open to the possibilities when considering an employer, and organizations are moving away from an era where recruiting and hiring were based solely on geographical location.
Early-phase tech company Cooler Screens doubled its workforce in 2021, hiring mostly remote employees after realizing the company could access a larger talent pool while working virtually throughout the pandemic. Headquartered in Chicago, the company has created new ways to onboard and engage its employees, almost half of whom are now located out of state (in 2019, only six out of the then small team of about 25 worked remotely). Team engagement and collaboration become more complex when a workforce is dispersed.
“We had an open concept floor plan with no private offices where everyone, including the CEO and senior leadership, was on the same floor,” shares Chief People Officer Mark Wattley (LAS ’88). “It had a real buzz about it, and that’s hard to replicate remotely. We’ve had to think differently about how we are getting the work done, but also, just as importantly, about how we are communicating and connecting.”
According to Wattley, creating time and space to have nonbusiness conversations is crucial for team rapport, bonding and engagement, especially in a remote or partially remote work environment. “We spend the first few minutes of our weekly team meetings chatting about photographs that we ask people to send that represent what they did over the weekend,” he shares, as an example. “It encourages those nonwork conversations and sidebars that can be a missed opportunity when you don’t see your co-workers on a daily basis.”
Cooler Screens officially reopened its Chicago office in the fall. However, with an increased emphasis on flexibility, the focus has been on using the office for collaboration, some meetings and socializing and as an option for individual work. And with a large workforce now outside of Chicago, the company plans to implement a framework for in-person meetings and events throughout the year to bring everyone in the company together to collaborate and connect.
“We have an extraordinary opportunity in HR to reshape how we work and how people think about work,” Wattley says. “The in-person component is still important, but in this new age, we need to think strategically about what it means to be in an office or not in an office. In my 30-year career, I can’t recall another opportunity like this for management and employees to have these conversations, and I think we should not waste it.”
Rediscovering the value of the office workspace
Reimagining office workspaces to increase employee engagement and productivity among workers is another rising trend. Justin Hucek (BUS ’09, MBA ’18) is an office tenant representative at CBRE who helps companies find workspaces in downtown Chicago and around the country. The office real estate market took a hit during the pandemic, but Hucek says it’s starting to pick up again, albeit with different needs.
“One of the major things we’re seeing is companies trying to create an environment that feels safe and welcoming, but also, frankly, a really cool space to come back to,” he says. “There’s been a mindset shift in trying to use office spaces as a way to attract people back.”
The successful companies, Hucek says, are the ones rethinking and revamping their offices to create more modern, collaborative working spaces of the future. “How can we utilize this space to create engagement, collaboration and inspiration in a way that can’t be done when you’re at home working alone?” is a question many are seeking to address. There has also been an increase in satellite offices popping up around the country as more companies are hiring remotely and wanting to provide a space for those employees. So, while office spaces aren’t going anywhere, the way they’ll be leveraged will likely look different.
One of the major things we’re seeing is companies trying to create an environment that feels safe and welcoming.”
– Justin Hucek (BUS ’09, MBA ’18)
“One thing that will drive how companies decide on their hybrid models is what their industry peers are doing,” Hucek says. “Keeping an eye on that will be important for attracting and retaining talent. If you’re a large firm asking your employees to come back five days a week, and your competitor offers flex days twice per week, you may run into a problem.”
The future of work—tips for success
“Pre-pandemic, most leaders would have said ‘people are our most important asset,’ but I feel there was a bit of lip service paid to that,” says Leslie Lemenager (MBA ’89), president of Gallagher’s International Benefits & HR Consulting division. “But now I think employers truly believe that people really are important. Whether you’re an educational institution or manufacturer, you need people in order to achieve your goals.”
Lemenager works with companies to help strengthen employer-employee relationships. She has these tips for organizations to navigate the new workplace:
- Know your core mission and values. When you understand who you are and what you do, it becomes easier to achieve your goals in an evolving hybrid/remote workplace. Organizations with this strong foundation adapt more quickly and are better able to make decisions that blend an employee’s needs with the business goals and objectives.
- Be consistent with your messaging. Communicating your plan to employees will be a challenge. Overcoming the challenge starts with leaders believing in and sharing a unified plan. The more effectively you can communicate and model your vision, the easier it will be to get others on board. Strong messaging also will help managers gain trust and autonomy for making decisions on a local basis.
- Identify the external factors and barriers beyond your control. Make sure you understand your decision-making framework. Know your technology constraints, your budget limitations and your industry’s HR policies and practices that may make change difficult or unattainable.
- Support the manager-employee relationship. Equip managers and employees with the tools, training and professional development they need to be successful in their new working environments. Many managers will need assistance with managing performance and supervising remote team members.
Employees, Lemenager says, need to be more proactive in engaging with their managers and peers, as well as take more ownership of their professional development. “How you get noticed by the higher-ups, get added to the groups or projects you want and build your network is going to look different,” she says. “It can be easy to just focus on your work and not pay attention to opportunities that can aid your career progression if you’re not surrounded by work every day in the traditional sense.”
By Nadia Alfadel Coloma