Published on Mar 29, 2021

Video Transcript

JOHN WHYTE: Welcome, everyone. I'm Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer at WebMD, and you're watching Coronavirus in Context.

Are you thinking about returning to work? How has COVID changed the way we work? To help answer that and provide some insights on some new research, I've asked Tony Lee. He's the Vice President of Content at the Society for Human Resource Management. Many of you know it as SHRM. Tony, thanks for joining me again. It's been about a year.

TONY LEE: Yeah, John. Time flies when you're working at home. Thank you for having me. It's great to be back.

JOHN WHYTE: You have some new research to share with us.

TONY LEE: I do. I do. And I will start by saying that what the research found is that there are a lot of companies that believe that they are an in office culture, an onsite culture. And because of that, they're taking steps to get back there.

SHRM is a perfect example. We reopened, I believe, two weeks ago Monday for all of those who are physically capable and don't have a health reason for not coming in. So we have a fair share of our employees here, and we are not alone.

So yeah, new research is showing-- and it's kind of interesting-- about 1/3 of all employers are either back or making plans to be back soon.

JOHN WHYTE: What does soon mean? Does that mean the summer? some? Companies are staying September.

TONY LEE: Yeah. No, this is actually saying within the near future. So we're seeing that as the next four to six weeks, they'll come back in. So that's about 1/3 of companies. 18% of the companies came back and said that they will never be back all fully in the office. Now that could mean some hybrid. But the way we took it, things have changed completely.

The biggest group, 49%, have no clue yet. They're still trying to figure out what they're going to do, and they're still making plans. They're watching the tea leaves. Now the other interesting part is the flip side. So we asked employees, workers, about returning to work. And it was very interesting. 52% of employees said their preference is to continue to work from home permanently full time. If they had that option, 52%.

Of those, 35% said they would take a pay cut to be able to continue to work at home full time. So they like it that much. Either that or they hate their commute so much that they want to stay at home. Or they've moved to Montana. One of those things.

So it's really interesting feedback. But I think where we're kind of ending up, where we are today-- and obviously, this is changing by the day-- is that hybrid is going to be where most companies end up, some form of some work at home, some work in the office.

JOHN WHYTE: But it has to vary by industry.

TONY LEE: Oh, no question.

JOHN WHYTE: Health is obviously very different than consulting, which is very different than finance. How does that factor into it?

TONY LEE: Yeah. Well, I mean, obviously, there are a lot of people who never worked at home. Manufacturing, health care, they were always on site because they had to be. They were essential workers doing their job.

So if you get beyond those folks and you talk about folks who have the potential to telework, there's not a great deal of difference between industries. It's really more about functions. So someone who works in finance, to your point, can probably do their job remotely for as long as they want to.

But that's not the issue that CEOs really say they're dealing with. What they're dealing with is culture. And if a company says, look, we are an onsite culture because that's how we collaborate, that's how we innovate, that's how people get to know one another and work well together, then they're going to do everything they can to get back to that culture and get people back in the office.

If, on the other hand- you mentioned consulting- if they're a consulting firm where most of them are on the road anyway, meeting with clients, working on projects, then they never really had an onsite culture and they don't need to start one now. So there's some variety there. But I think it really comes down to the CEO's vision for the company.

JOHN WHYTE: And how are you going to deal with this tension between what employers t-- and many of them will want people to come back-- versus what you just talked about, w employees ant? We've got to acknowledge there's going to be tension. How is this going to be worked down and when is it going to be worked out?

TONY LEE: Yeah. It's evolutionary, there's no question. I think if we do this again a year from now, we'll probably have a very different response. As I mentioned at the top, I think hybrid is proving to be the answer. We just did an interview with the CEO of Pfizer. And he said that they did a lot of internal research, and where they ended up was that two to three days a week at home, two to three days in the week in the office is the perfect balance.

JOHN WHYTE: That could be six days.

TONY LEE: And maybe that's the answer. Or four days, depending on how you define it. But the idea is there are days where you just want to sit and be productive and do your work, and you can certainly do that at home, and then perhaps days where you really want to collaborate, be in meetings with others, and those are the days you come into the office.

And one of the things we're hearing is that instead of staggering it around, which originally, from a health perspective, people thought, oh, let's do it so we don't have everybody at the same time, you actually do it so that everyone is in at the same time.

JOHN WHYTE: I was going to ask you about that, Tony, because what some people have argued is that working from home works well when it applies to everyone. But when some people are going to be in the conference room and some people are on Zoom or online, it makes it harder. And in some ways, will there be a pressure for those people to come in to have that face time with managers for advancement, and those that choose to work from home will be treated differently?

But in your scenario you talked about, the same vehicles, basically, for communication would apply to everyone at the same time, whether it's virtual or in person.

TONY LEE: Yeah, I think that hits it on the head, that the key is treating everyone equally and consistently. If you think about pre-pandemic, it was a problem then. How often when you sitting in a meeting with 10 other people and there are three people on the phone, and at the end of the meeting, somebody says, oh, wait, what about the people on the phone? Hey, you guys have anything you want to add? It's like you're a non-person. So I think that's been addressed.

And one other way. We are seeing more companies, at least now, even when you're in the office, the meetings are being held on Zoom or on Webex or teams so that everybody is that little square in the box, and some people don't have an advantage being in a room and others not in a room.

Long term, it may be kind of the hybrid idea where there are certain meetings that are held on days when most people are at home or working remotely, and so everybody's on Zoom, and other meetings that are held on days when most people are in the office and they're held in person.

JOHN WHYTE: What's business travel going to look like?

TONY LEE: Yeah, that's a great question. You know, it's funny. We actually are planning our annual conference for September in person in Las Vegas. There will be a virtual option for it. But our advance planning team is there. I just literally got off a call with them, and they said you would not know there's a pandemic in Las Vegas. The restaurants are full. The hotels are full. The strip is full of people, and it's mid-March.

So I think people are anxious to get back out to start networking with one another. Now of course, that's not true for everyone. There are certain people who will not feel comfortable doing that. But if people are vaccinated, which is really the key, and it feels like-- you would be the expert there-- it feels like by September, by midsummer, the majority of people who want to be vaccinated will be vaccinated, then business travel likely will rebound.

JOHN WHYTE: And I think September is different than right now. There still is risk. There still is virus. Many people are still hospitalized. Is there going to be mandatory vaccination?

TONY LEE: That's a good question. A lot of employers are wrestling with whether to require a vaccine. What we're hearing is that companies who have employees in customer-facing positions may very well require the vaccine because customers are going to demand it, or at least request it. But for the most part, companies, it sounds like, are encouraging the vaccine, not requiring the vaccine.

JOHN WHYTE: When we talked last time, there was no vaccine. And we actually talked about reopening back then, and it was a lot about air filtration, a lot about disinfection and spacing. How much of that still applies now in terms of reopening? Does spacing still matter? You had talked about the configuration of the workplace. It may be fewer of these open spaces. Cleaning may not be as relevant now to the same degree that it was before. What does the physical office structure look like?

TONY LEE: Yeah. I mean, our thinking about this has evolved so much. I think all of the basic things that we talked about last time are now table stakes. You have no question that you're going to disinfect regularly, that you're going to have spacing in elevators, you're going to have Plexiglas--

JOHN WHYTE: Still spacing in elevators in September?

TONY LEE: No, I think there'll still be spacing. We have it here. I've seen it in all our coverage that there are signage that companies have put up all over saying, look, here are the basic rules of life in a pandemic. You need to wear a mask in the office. No more than so many people in a conference room.

JOHN WHYTE: But in September, when, say, a large percentage of people are vaccinated, will those policies still apply?

TONY LEE: Well, if I had a crystal ball, I'd be sitting on an island somewhere.

JOHN WHYTE: We are going to Vegas.

TONY LEE: It feels like that once a company goes to the effort of creating these rules and regulations to keep everyone safe, they're going to be slow to remove them. Will they enforce them as strongly in September? It's anybody's guess. How hard are they enforcing it today? If a fifth person gets on an elevator, what happens?

JOHN WHYTE: We stare at them.

TONY LEE: Right. I think people will probably be more lax as the months pass and as people get vaccinated. I don't know that this calendar year, you're going to see the signage disappear.

JOHN WHYTE: And Tony, tell us where people can find more information about SHRM.

TONY LEE: Sure. Shrm.org. We've got so much great data and information, a Coronavirus Resource Center, a Return To work Resource Center, a Vaccination Resource Center, so lots of great info.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, Tony, I want to thank you again for coming on and sharing your insights, for giving us a peek at your latest data. And thanks for all you're doing to help keep the workplace safe.

TONY LEE: Well, thank you, John. Really appreciate it. Always fun to be with you.

JOHN WHYTE: And thank you for watching. If you have questions about COVID, drop us a line. You can email us at [email protected] as well as post on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Be safe.