The Challenges of ‘Getting Back to Work’

Businesses across most sectors have started developing strategies to bring their employees back to the office on at least a part-time basis. But doing so is proving to be just as challenging, if not more so, than the move to remote work was in early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic started, because of the health, legal and other issues involved.

During the latest Women in Technology Hollywood (WiTH) Connection Corner webinar, “Getting Back to Work,” on Sept. 17, experts from the media and entertainment, technology, legal and healthcare sectors discussed the complexities involved in returning to the office.

Despite the challenges involved, including the COVID surge caused by the delta variant that has made many companies postpone their office returns, the experts stressed that the shift to remote work has also had some advantages.

As a member of California law firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo’s executive committee, Thomas A. Lenz, a partner at the firm and a labor and employment law expert, has “been helping businesses navigate the moving goalposts and challenges of COVID and getting people back to work, as well as doing so for my own firm” also, he said.

“We’ve gone remote. We’ve come back and it’s still a transition period for us [with] many ongoing challenges,” he said.

“This has been a period unlike any in my career” of about 30 years, he told viewers, noting: “I’ve never seen safety at such a high priority level” and so many people protesting about working conditions.

Employees are glad their company survived through the pandemic thanks to the ability to work remotely, which “has been a godsend,” he said.

Meanwhile, this has been a “gift to lawyers because the rules will be different next week than they are today,” he said with a laugh. Companies, therefore, need to be “much more conscious” of their employees now and know what their needs and goals are to avoid lawsuits, he said.

Discussing one advantage of the shift to remote work, Lenz said he loves knowing employees have pets or a kid that needs to be fed, noting: “It’s humanized people even though we’re so much more dependent on technology.”

People are also now less willing to take jobs that won’t allow them to work remotely, he said, pointing out his assistant is leaving his company for a job that promises to be 100% remote.

“Peoples’ priorities are changing” and companies must figure out how to “sweeten the deal” and offer a hybrid work format, he said, stressing the importance of flexibility.

Adjusting Quickly

Most of the 200 employees at entertainment technology company X2X in four countries, five locations “can actually work from home,” according to Anne-Marie Canter, its chief human resources officer.

“We managed to adjust pretty quickly” to the shift to remote work last year, she recalled. “But what we found was hard to manage was sort of the changing external environment and employees having to manage everything else that was happening around them.”

X2X told its employees in the middle of this year that it wasn’t “going to do any kind of forced push to go back to the office until the earliest the end of the year,” she said. After all, the delta variant happened, people were still being vaccinated and “there was still a lot going on,” she explained.

“We also knew that there were some employees who actually wanted to get out of their homes and wanted to be in the office,” she said. So the company encouraged its employees to work with their teams to agree on what they would do for the rest of the year in their departments as far as work location, she told viewers, adding: “We said we’d do a survey at the end of September and then revisit everything towards the end of the year. So by doing that, we didn’t really have to come up with what I would [call] very new policies.”

But X2X had to “move very quickly because we’re in different locations to make sure that the employees that were going into the office – because we do have some that had to go into the office to do work… were being compliant with local guidelines,” she pointed out.

In the U.K., for instance, the COVID health guidelines were “very strong and so we really had to work with them on that but we didn’t really change any major company policies,” she said, adding: “We tightened up the remote working policy a little bit. But we found out there was so much… to think about that we almost wanted to be more soft about things until the world settled down – whenever that will be.”

A lot of the company’s employees, “because we had gone global, were already struggling with getting up in the morning, having to be on calls with London, then having to commute into San Francisco or L.A.” to go to their offices, she noted. A lot of the Los Angeles employees loved going into the office and “it didn’t even enter their heads that they could work from home” before the pandemic, she said.

“It was difficult. It was a struggle” because the company was used to working on-site but once it became clear that the work of most employees could be done remotely, [management] could no longer say [employees] had to work at the office because their jobs couldn’t be done from home,” she explained.

The company was reluctant to mandate anything” because it is “flexibility that employees really want,” she said, adding she was surprised how many employees wanted to work on-site at least some of the time. (She projected that only about 30% of employees wanted to work from home five days a week.)

But the concept of a traditional schedule in an office five days a week is “gone and will be away for a long time,” she predicted.

She offered one more prediction: “The companies that will be successful at retaining their best talent will learn how to lead and manage and be outcome-oriented and be able to flip very quickly and the ones that can’t do it will lose their top talent.”

One more “silver lining is that I think COVID forced people to say ‘I’m really struggling’” for reasons that may include they’re working out of a one-bedroom apartment with their wife and kids, their grandmother went to the hospital with COVID, or they are lonely working alone, she went on to say.

Forcing management to be more open and check in with their employees is “doing us all a lot of good,” she said.

During the pandemic, her company also was able to open up a remote Budapest office with 12 employees, she also told viewers.

Pharmavite’s ‘Top-Down Approach’

Pharmavite delegated the responsibilities of deciding a return-to-work strategy to the managers of its teams, according to Morgan Insua, director of IT infrastructure at the dietary supplement company.

The company wanted to “take a top-down approach” and each department of the company discussed which roles at Pharmavite could be done remotely all the time, which had flexibility, and which were mostly on-site, he explained. Managers of each team discussed the strategy with employees and then noted the plan was subject to change.

One plus of working remotely has been that it’s actually often easier to contact an employee you want to have a conversation with now, he also said. What may have taken a week to happen in the office now takes only a few minutes to do now, he noted.

Pharmavite’s human resources department also told employees: “If you absolutely refuse to come back into the office, we’re going to consider that your resignation because we are an on-site company. So, if your role demands that you be on-site and you are not going to do that, then you’re not doing your job,” Iseabail Lane, director of application development and enterprise data at the firm and also a WiTH board member, told viewers.

When they joined the company, after all, they were agreeing to work on site, she noted.

But moderator Nina Skor us-Neely, secretary of the WiTH Foundation, warned that many employees are leaving companies that won’t allow them to work remotely.