A return to not-quite normal

As people trickle back into the workplace around Central Pennsylvania, it may feel like a return to normal. But the feeling could be deceptive.

The return to the workplace is a change. And while the change is welcome, people still need time to adjust.

“It’s not like you can just pick up where you left off,” said Karie Batzler, director of behavioral health for Capital BlueCross, a regional health insurer based in Susquehanna Township, Dauphin County.

People may be wearing masks in some public areas, avoiding other areas, and juggling care for young children and elderly parents. There may have been other changes to the office and to corporate teams, many of which were forced to downsize.

People may even experience anxiety, she said. For many, it may be an understandable caution following months with limited in-person social and professional contact.

“I think for employers, it would be wise for them to consider what supports will be needed for their employees in making that transition,” said Batzler.

Flexible or hybrid schedules have emerged as one of the most common post-pandemic tools being picked up by companies. They allow people to mix work from home with work from the office, mimicking the flexibility many came to expect while working entirely at home, if they were able.

While such schedules are not new, employers likely will see much greater demand for them.

“The recruitment of talent will necessitate people having a more robust flexible work schedule,” said Rob Glus, a partner and consulting actuary at Conrad Siegel, an employee benefits advisory firm in Susquehanna Township, Dauphin County.

But flexible schedules are not just a matter of policy. They also are a matter of communication. People will need to know which colleagues are going to be in the office when, for example, spurring a need for greater transparency.

“That is absolutely the most critical thing to make it work, that people communicate what their schedule is,” said Troy Bankert, CEO and co-owner of Warehaus, a York-based architecture and engineering firm. 

The company’s 40 employees worked remotely for the first six months of the pandemic but have been on a hybrid schedule since then, which led the firm to downsize its office. It is moving in April from a 37,00-square-foot space at 320 N. George St. to an 8,900-square-foot space down the street at 231 N. George St.

In addition to their needs for space, employers may want to reconsider how they are measuring productivity, particularly for employees who are supposed to be toiling away at home.

“People who … didn’t do it before might find it challenging,” Glus said.

Another challenge lies in creating and maintaining corporate culture in a world where people spend less time in the office. Companies cooked up lots of virtual alternatives over the last year, such as Zoom happy hours and virtual step contests.

But, said Glus: “I know I would rather see my staff and talk and sit down with them … You develop relationships with the people that you’re working with, and some of that can get lost really easily in the remote environment.”

Picnics and parties will help restore connections among co-workers, particularly once vaccinations kick in. But a better way to foster teamwork is through assigning teams to work-related tasks, said Tracy Brower, a principal with office-furniture company Steelcase, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“People actually bond more significantly over tasks when you have to put your heads together, when you have to roll up your sleeves together, when you have to solve a problem together,” said Brower, author of “The Secrets to  Happiness at Work.”

They may even want to meet up in the office every once in a while.

— By Joel Berg, editor of biznewsPA

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