Companies examine post-pandemic work models
Before the coronavirus pandemic, LaToya Jordan regularly missed small moments in her children’s lives — like seeing her young son getting off the bus each day. She commuted to downtown Richmond or to a client site and arrived home after her children.
The state agency where she works allowed telecommuting one day a week, and her schedule was flexible, but 90% of her work week was spent in the office. After the pandemic, though, her work schedule changed dramatically, and more than 18 months later, she still isn’t fully back in the office.
Jordan, the deputy auditor for human capital and operations for the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts, was working from home about four days each week as of late September.
Like so many other workplaces across Virginia and the nation, her agency shifted fully to remote work when the pandemic began in March 2020 and has not fully transitioned back to working onsite. And there’s a good chance it will never return to its pre-pandemic model.
“I think what we’re transitioning to is going to be more of a hybrid situation,” Jordan says. “We appreciate that we have the technology to support us being able to work primarily remotely, but we also realize the benefit of in-person collaborating as well.”
“I think we will continue to have way more flexibility than we did before the pandemic,” she says.
‘The future of work will be flexible’
Flexibility will be the name of the game when looking ahead to post-pandemic work environments. It’s what many workers say they want moving forward.
In the Virginia Society of Certified Public Accountants’ latest annual survey of current economic conditions and expectations, conducted in partnership with Virginia Business, 78% of respondents said that work flexibility is the top trait displayed by businesses that are recovering well from the pandemic.
Forty percent of survey respondents expect to work a hybrid schedule during the next six months and 53% expect they will be working remotely for the next six months. Looking out a year, 37% say they expect a mix of hybrid, still mostly remote, and about 30% say hybrid, but mostly onsite.
The survey, completed by Virginia CPAs in public accounting, private industry, government and education, confirms that not knowing what the future holds is one of the key cruxes companies are facing in planning for doing business in the post-pandemic world.
“I think one of my lessons learned is, you can’t be too set in your ways or set in your plans,” says VSCPA President and CEO Stephanie Peters. “You have to have this ability to plan what you can but know that there’s going to be disruption, and that’s just happening so much more quickly as we’ve seen over the past 12 to 18 months.”
This summer, as it appeared that the world might be getting back to normal, the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 spurred a resurgence in coronavirus cases, halting or delaying post-Labor Day plans that many businesses had for returning to the office.
Hantzmon Wiebel LLP, a Charlottesville accounting and financial advisory firm with about 100 employees, had to use an “emergency remote access plan” and turn on a dime in March 2020 to make sure everyone had the ability to work from home. “We ended up going down to less than 20 to 25% of people in the building during the height of the pandemic,” says Jennifer Lehman, the firm’s CEO. “We implemented technology like crazy.”
In June 2020, Hantzmon Wiebel employees started edging back toward the office, but some requested permission to work mostly remotely on a permanent basis. Prior to the pandemic, the firm had been making plans to move to a smaller office, but it plans to downsize even more, with remote work remaining an option.
Companies large and small have been adapting to meet the needs and concerns of their employees, including child care needs and worries about potentially infecting their children who aren’t yet old enough to be vaccinated.
Grant Thornton LLP, a Chicago-based global accounting corporation with about 1,200 employees in Arlington, had a seamless transition to remote work amid the pandemic and has promised its 8,500 national employees that their work schedules will be flexible.
“Our work does assume that we’re mobile and moving to respond to our clients’ needs, and post-pandemic we’ve really continued that.” says Greg Wallig, managing principal for Grant Thornton’s Washington, D.C., region office in Arlington. “Our view is that the future of work will be flexible and so will we. Our employees are empowered to work in whatever way best suits the needs of the client, and if that’s remote and meets their comfort levels and the client’s satisfaction, we’re happy to support that.”
Since the pandemic began, Grant Thornton has taken measures to assist employees, including monthly internet subsidies, reimbursing for personal protective equipment, doubling the firm’s child care subsidies and subsidizing food-delivery service memberships. The firm also gave each employee a $1,000 stipend to help defray personal expenses.
“We sought really to help employees cover the additional costs that we imagined they were incurring based on the response to the pandemic,” Wallig says.
The measures have helped employee retention — Grant Thornton didn’t lose any more employees during the pandemic than it did in pre-pandemic times, Wallig notes.
“That’s really wonderful when you consider this pandemic working model has gone on 18 months now,” he says. “A year and a half is a long period of time, and I’m really thankful that the combination of both benefits that we offered our employees and just the atmosphere that we created … has continued to give people a sense of connection. They understand the job market is hot right now and there are opportunities out there, but they choose to stay with Grant Thornton because of the culture.”
Shifting work culture
Improving the remote work experience is something 41% of VSCPA survey respondents say their companies plan to do.
DXC Technology Co., an IT services company, is moving its corporate headquarters from Tysons to Ashburn in November and shrinking its footprint to reflect a virtual-first mentality. Employees can work from anywhere and will use the office as more of a communal space than an everyday work environment. What started as a multiyear plan was essentially accelerated overnight, says DXC Chief Operating Officer Chris Drumgoole.
DXC has “dramatically increased” its investment in technology, he says. “The office should really be more about a place to come together, collaborate [and] get together because human interaction is still really important and we think it’s there, but it doesn’t have to be every day, 9 to 5, to plug in.”
Technology is just one component of DXC’s changing work model, Drumgoole says. It’s really a cultural and procedural change enabled by technology.
Some companies say working remotely has built deeper ties among colleagues.
“I think the one thing that has kind of stood out to me over the past year and a half is the supporting nature of people,” says Jordan. “I think that because we’ve had to come together and make some decisions and make sure we’re collaborating to get the work done, it’s created stronger connections in some regards as well.”
Jordan has had her own challenges. One time she was in the middle of a meeting when her infant son was crying. Her older son did his best to soothe the baby, but ultimately, Jordan had to take over. She rocked the baby while participating in the meeting. The experience made her more compassionate as a leader, she says.
“While the pandemic has been challenging, I think that it’s also brought forth some benefit from a work-life balance perspective, as well.”
A greater emphasis on work-life balance is one of the factors that has contributed to what economists are calling “the Great Resignation,” an ongoing pandemic-era trend of people leaving their jobs in search of better working conditions and quality of life. In turn, such voluntary separations are contributing to severe labor shortages across virtually every industry.
To prevent turnover, it’s necessary that employees feel secure, says Vinod Agarwal, deputy director of the Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy at Old Dominion University.
One of the forces contributing to the labor shortage is a reluctance to return to workplaces for fear of getting sick, he says. The risk has to be worth it, and that’s a decision made beyond what a person brings home in pay.
“The only way to solve this problem is having to pay high wages and thinking differently than we have been doing historically” he says. “Workers are not just workers; they are part of a family. We have to learn how to take care of them. Some [employers] are providing day care services [or] bonuses to employees. … It is not just higher wages; it is how we treat our employees. That is a lesson to be learned from the pandemic.”
Many workers are not going back to minimum wage positions they deem too risky, says Maggie Cowell, an associate professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech who specializes in economic development. But that leaves companies in a lurch, too.
About 85% of respondents to the VSCPA’s annual economic expectations survey reported that labor shortages pose a significant or moderate risk to their companies or industries. The same percentage of respondents, 85%, are concerned about rising labor costs.
Even after expanded unemployment benefits have ended, workers largely are not returning to jobs they previously held, she says, adding that “the length of time that we are watching this play out seems pretty pronounced.”
And when workers leave and find better pay or working conditions, it tends to have a “contagious” effect, inspiring their former co-workers to also resign, she adds. “Given the amount of [job] opportunities for people who are looking … you can’t blame them.”
According to a survey conducted by the National Federation of Independent Business in mid-September, 27% of small employers are currently experiencing significant staffing shortages and another 18% are experiencing moderate staffing shortages.
This has employers brainstorming ways to make their companies more appealing to potential hires.
DXC, which has 130,000 employees worldwide, including several hundred in Arlington and the Washington, D.C., region, is hoping to use its virtual-first mindset as a differentiator when recruiting.
Lehman, with Hantzmon Wiebel in Charlottesville, says her firm is considering hiring experienced candidates from out of state for remote work. Despite the pandemic and changes in work models, though, the core values at Lehman’s firm have not changed, she says.
“What’s really, really important during the pandemic is focusing on culture, focusing on your people, focusing on making sure that you were taking care of what was important before, which … for us … was our clients and our team members,” Lehman says, “… and I think that’s what made it so it was OK.”
This article has been corrected.