SALT LAKE CITY — The coronavirus pandemic is showing employers and employees that the workplace of the future could likely look different than it has in years past, with a mix of more virtual technology and less traditional interpersonal environments.
Some employers have pivoted to transition to a remote working model, allowing nonessential employees to work from home or perform their duties from a location of their choosing.
According to a recent Downtown Alliance survey of local employers, 76% of downtown office employees are primarily working remotely, with 24% working some portion of the week from their downtown office. A similar survey last week showed employers expect work-from-office numbers to increase in the next 30 days.
“There’s a lot that we learn just by being in the same space. And for a lot of people, seeing your co-workers and colleagues is probably one of the best parts of the job,” said Weber State University sociology professor Marjukka Ollilainen, whose expertise includes the sociology of work and organizations.
“A lot of people will go to a crappy job if they have fun people to work with. So the isolation that workers might be feeling is probably real.”
The reestablishment of workplace culture will take time and a concerted effort on the part of workplace leadership, Ollilainen said.
“There’s the culture that is going to change, and it’s up to the employers to maintain that sense of community,” she said.
However, she added that despite some of the benefits of working in a traditional workplace environments, the pandemic has shown some distinct efficiency and economic advantages of remote working that are impossible to overlook.
“My educated guess is that we are going to see people being more cognizant of the benefits, and perhaps even letting go of some of the social interaction and culture that exists in the workplace,” she said. “There are just so many benefits to a lot of workers who can work from home, especially if they live far away.”
Because of those significant benefits, Ollilainen said more employers and employees will likely choose the flexibility of remote work to a much larger degree in the post-pandemic future.
“The key now is the employers — if they’re willing to change — because there was for the longest time this sort of perhaps outdated suspicion about how work cannot be done in the home or remotely,” she said. “Can workers be relied upon without constant surveillance?
“But every time you log onto your computer if you’re working remotely, people can see whether you’re logging on or not. There are some technologies to be used by employers, but it’s going to change. There’s a growing number of workers who are preparing for even after the pandemic — they want to stay with what they’re doing remotely.”
As for the loss of face-to-face personal interaction in the workplace for the sake of efficiency, she said that dynamic is likely going to be a casualty of the technology age hastened by the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.
“Usually if there’s an efficiency, that’s the direction we’re going to go. But as a person, I feel like we’re losing something,” Ollilainen said. “The workplace is going to be changing, that’s for sure. How do we then maintain that same kind of culture? While I can mourn that loss, I don’t think we’re ever going back.”
For the time being, this “workplace” model is the prevalent environment for workers everywhere. While this situation may change one day when circumstances allow individuals to return to their usual workplace environment, there are others who will likely continue the current model where they work in a way that suits their individual needs.
“I have worked from home for a couple of years now after doing the whole office thing and corporate thing,” said Elizabeth Rouse, 29, a recent California transplant who is a managing partner in her family’s business in the food industry.
“I realized, ‘Why do I want to work hard to put money in someone else’s pocket?’ So I took over my family’s produce brokerage and for the last couple of years I’ve been running that, so I haven’t actually had an office to go to for a while.”
Instead, she took out a membership at a local co-working space called Kiln at The Gateway in downtown Salt Lake City. The flex office space provides members with various workplace amenities in a community environment where they can work solo, conduct meetings in private rooms or socialize using proper safety protocols. Rouse said it is the ideal situation for her current work life.
“(Before this), I’ve never been a part of a co-working space at all. I’ve always had no problem working from home. But I really needed it to try to meet people in the middle of a pandemic, which is very hard to do,” she said.
“So that’s why I wanted to join Kiln because it was something that really got me out of the house and I really appreciated all the protocols and the policies that they had in place that still made it a safe environment during the pandemic. But also just they’re wanting you to meet as many people as you can in a safe way, so I love that.”
Rouse said social interactions are important.
“(It’s) people like me who work where it’s a one- or two-person business, but then you also have small businesses in there as well, and that’s something that I’ve missed from an office — is that energy,” Rouse said. “That little piece of a social life as well. Probably not the best idea during a pandemic but my mentality needed it.”
Similarly, Skyler Gunnuscio, 19, a social media intern at Partners in Post — a postproduction studio specializing in corporate communications — said having access to a co-working environment is an perfect solution after being forced to work remotely when the pandemic struck.
“I got hired on Feb. 11 and then about a month later we started working from home,” he said. After just two months of working from home, he’d had enough.
“I was done working from home,” he said. “I said, ‘No more.’ I like to be around people and have the energy of the office around me.”
While he’s not sure what will happen when employers are able to decide whether to return to work, he believes a hybrid model will work best for his particular circumstance.
“I like a mixture of both. I like the flexibility, but at the end of the day I kind of want to be in the office,” Gunnuscio said. “One of my favorite parts about Kiln is just having all these other entrepreneurs and businesses around you. There’s always just people moving. When it comes down to it, I just like the social interaction and getting ideas. Being able to talk to someone, tap them on the shoulder at the desk and (talk) if you’ve got a question or whatever.
“It just comes down to having the energy of the office around me,” he said.
While co-working spaces are in vogue today, when the pandemic first hit, the number of people using places like Kiln fell in a hurry.
“We saw an immediate drop in memberships back when (Utah Jazz center) Rudy Gobert got COVID, and the world changed,” said Arian Lewis, Kiln founder and CEO. “So we saw a fall off of revenues. But then we also saw — over time — a gradual migration from traditional office or long-term leases into flexible office.”
He noted that like the Great Recession, which caused significant acceleration and adoption of software as a service or other kinds of flexible solutions, COVID-19 could very well accelerate the adoption of flex office space.
“It’s more cost-effective for businesses, it reduces financial risk. It of course provides greater flexibility and it allows companies right now to experiment with the workplace strategy or the workplace model that really works best for them,” he said.
The role of the office has become more malleable and flexible, Lewis explained.
“We used to see people come to the office from 8 to 5 every day,” he said. “Now the office will be used more strategically for project-based work and for team collaboration. You’ll see a good amount of companies say Friday is a work-from-home day, or you can pick one other day during the week when it’s work from home.”
He said once 40% to 60% of employees return to the office, the other individuals that are still at home will want to come in and be a part of the team dynamic that begins to be reborn in the office.
“I believe that will happen at least three days a week, and in some cases for most companies, will end up being in the office three or four days a week,” Lewis said. “What will not go away is the adoption of a more flexible approach to at least one or two days a week working from home.”