Commentary By: Ana Altchek, Follow South Jersey Intern
When the pandemic first began, I went from touring the bustling streets of Europe during my study abroad program, to living back at my parents’ home in New Jersey for the long and foreseeable future, all in a span of 48 hours.
Even though I felt dissatisfied by the stagnation of my new suburban life for a couple of months, I eventually discovered new passions in a way that changed me for the better. While I never lost my sense of ambition, the absence of nightlife, in-person interaction, and community events forced me to redefine my core values and find support from peers in new ways — as did many others during this time.
While the long term effects of the pandemic remain unresolved for the time being, one remains clear — the workplace landscape changed. With a new emphasis on individualism, remote work becoming the new norm, and an employee shortage emerging from over 38 million Americans leaving their jobs in 2021. It’s clear that Americans are shifting their standards and expectations in what they are searching for from their work.
As the world experienced this new era, people developed new hobbies, such as working out, knitting, or spending time outdoors. Additionally, mental health came to the forefront of the conversation and a focus on therapy and wellness emerged. While the concept of work used to dominate American culture and provide many with a sense of purpose and even dignity, employees learned to expand their interests to other aspects of life.
Now that companies are transitioning back to in-person work, it’s vital that they take into account their employees’ new lifestyle and needs if they want them to come to the office and maintain the same level of dedication to their jobs. Employees are demanding more money, more benefits, and more consideration for their personal life. Thus, companies need to be weary of overworking employees or asking for more of their time than necessary.
Despite this shift in mentality over the last two years, companies weren’t negatively affected by this new mindset. In fact, many companies actually thrived over the last two years. According to a report by Owl Labs analyzing the state of remote work in 2021, 83% of employees said that they were equally if not more productive while working from home.
A study through Stanford further consolidated this finding by tracking the productivity of 16,000 workers. Over the span of nine months, productivity increased by 13%. Apparently, working in a more quiet and convenient location allowed employees to make more calls per minute and take fewer breaks. It also limited sick days, improved employee work satisfaction and decreased attrition rates by 50%.
With restrictions being lifted across the globe and the vaccine allowing people to resume back to normalcy, employees are reluctant to return to the same work culture that dominated their lives pre-pandemic. A study by McKinsey reported that 29% of employees would quit their job if they had to exclusively work in person after the pandemic.
Employees don’t want to feel that they are spending extra time, money, and resources towards work, if they can have the same success from the comfort of their home or from another location that pleases them. Since the pandemic offered employees flexibility above all, this is something that companies need to accommodate now that the pandemic is over.
With that said, there is certainly some merit to coming into the office, even if it isn’t an everyday requirement. It can help bridge connections between coworkers and create a more unified environment with shared goals. However, if there isn’t a legitimate and statistical difference in performance, employers should avoid rigid mindsets about their requirements for coming into the office.
Even though many companies stress the importance of returning in person to increase employee interaction and strengthen coworker relationships, many people actually felt that their work relationships grew during the pandemic because of shared empathy and an environment of understanding.
With many companies returning to in-person or hybrid schedules, they should keep these new policies in place. By keeping mental health stipends, allowing days off for mental health, and creating leniency around coming in person, employees may feel more connected to their workplace and thus more inclined to stay.
Another way to do this may be through an employee assistance program (EAP), which has become increasingly popular over the last two years. EAPs provide counseling, referrals, assessments and check-ins for employees dealing with various issues that might affect their work such as drug abuse or alcoholism, financial struggles, legal problems, personal issues, domestic violence, or job stress.
Additionally, since mask restrictions and social distancing guidelines have been removed for now, employees will want to take vacations, go out for social events and attend concerts or other kinds of festivals. Companies need to leave space for employees to do so, and perhaps even take a more lenient approach than usual because of the restriction imposed on everyone over the last two years.
During COVID, employees demonstrated that they can easily adapt to new conditions. More importantly, as the Owl Labs and Stanford study exemplified, employees proved that they can be even more productive when working remotely. Thus, companies should adopt a mindset in which they continue to make space for employee self growth and comfort within their work life.
It’s crucial to note that a major disparity exists in the country between various industries and not all companies excelled in the last two years. For small businesses, local stores and restaurants, among other workplaces that survive off of in-person visitors, now may not be the time to expend more money and resources on employee comfortability.
For the companies that did well during the COVID era though, and excelled with remote work, they should make an effort to continue to offer services that help employees and accommodate their new needs. By offering leniency with remote work options, vacation time, and mental health resources, companies will make this transitional time less strenuous.
After all, as the last two years have shown, employees will have no issues leaving their jobs if they don’t feel fulfilled by their job or valued by their current employers.
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