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Opinion: What the post-COVID-19 workplace may look like

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Today as I sit in my office, I am struck by how different it is than the office I left in mid-March. You know, when we all headed home to shelter-in-place from the coming threat of the coronavirus. Things are much quieter now than they were then.

I’m surrounded by just under 50% of my colleagues, while the other half continue to work from their homes. The half that are here work quietly from their individual offices. The building even smells different. The refrigerator is empty. There’s no coffee brewing in the kitchen or microwave meals being heated for working lunches. The office smells clean, kind of lemony fresh meets rubbing alcohol.

As I reflect on my physical work environment and how things used to be, I am certain of two things. First, I remain committed to brick and mortar. Springfield Business Journal invested in new office space less than a year ago. We left our downtown office of nearly 25 years to head to a space that would situate our entire staff on one floor to achieve more efficient collaboration. We were looking for natural lighting, vibrant artwork, social meeting spaces and an overall environment designed to inspire and invigorate the staff. We were looking for a space that was as fresh and creative as the people inside. I believe we accomplished those things in our new Chesterfield Village offices. The staff was proud to bring in clients and family members to show off our new digs, and many expressed renewed enthusiasm about coming to work. I am certain that coming back together in this space, at a time when we can all do so safely and comfortably, is in the best interest of our business, the staff and our individual livelihoods.

Secondly, I am equally certain that some of the changes we were forced to make in the wake of COVID-19 are here to stay. Here are four of them:

Flexible work schedules and workspaces have become a basic expectation. As an employer, I no longer have plausible deniability that things can be done remotely. We proved when we went home that we could still get a great paper out by deadline without appearing in the office. It is reasonable then to assume that when life’s little challenges present themselves (like child care issues, scheduled household repairs or virtually anything else that can reasonably require our presence in the home) the work can still happen. SBJ’s full return to the office will most likely include a revision to the employee handbook allowing for increased flexibility for staff members to work a portion of their schedule from home.

Sick leave is a must. Our immediate response to a sneezing co-worker used to be, “God bless you.” This politeness now takes a back seat to a look of utter horror and a quick duck and cover. No one wants to work around or beside someone who is even a little under the weather, no matter how much we are depending on that still-functioning staff member to pull their weight on pending projects. Employees must stay home when they are feeling ill and still have the option of clocking in when they are well enough to work. This, too, will necessitate a change to the handbook that doesn’t penalize staff members for doing the right thing or rob them of their vacations because they chose to spare the rest of us their germs.

Staff wellness requires addressing the whole person. As I’ve struggled to balance a return to workplace normalcy with very real individual anxieties about leaving the safety of home, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the importance of nurturing the mental well-being of staff members. Any sick leave policies that are developed must acknowledge that not all ailments are physical and that employers also must make room for mental and emotional healing or renewal.

Technology is a front-burner issue. We have advanced more technologically in the last three months than we have in the last 10 years. We can no longer run systems or software until they are broken, unsupported or obsolete. We have become reliant on remote support, Zoom-driven meetings and virtual events. We made it home and back to business in half of a day because we embraced the technology that could take us there. I can no longer envision a public event without some kind of virtual component any more than I can imagine staying connected to staff and workflow without a mechanically driven mode of communication.

While my vision is crystal clear about where we’ve been and what we must at some point get back to, it remains unclear to me exactly how we will get there. I sense the transition will be arduous and painful for some. I hope you will read into this column an invitation to share your experiences and best practices as we climb the mountain in front of us.

While our businesses, products and services differ greatly, many of our challenges are the same. Let’s find our way back together.

Springfield Business Journal Publisher Jennifer Jackson can be reached at jjackson@sbj.net.

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