Big Decisions About Work Culture Face Employers — And Their Employees — In A Post-COVID Age
Like many people, David Kaplan has spent the COVID-19 era — thus far — working from home. And he admits the arrangement has had its perks.
Near the top of his list is the roughly $600 he’s saved on campus parking at St. Louis University, where he’s a professor of management. There’s also the fact that he doesn’t regularly spend nearly an hour and a half commuting there and back from his home in Edwardsville, Illinois. But he’s missed some aspects of the office and the classroom, too, such as the camaraderie and collaboration.
“Projects just work better in person a lot of times,” Kaplan, who chairs SLU’s Department of Management, told St. Louis on the Air.
He’s observed the emerging potentials and pitfalls of post-COVID work culture with particular interest. And as someone who researches career management issues, Kaplan’s early sense is that the pre-COVID expectation that office employees be on-site five days a week may be falling to the wayside. After all, many workers have proven for months just how effective they can be completing duties remotely — and aren’t eager to return to the office.
“It’s been over a year,” he told host Sarah Fenske on Monday’s show. “It’s been long enough now that people just got into the habit.”
In the meantime, workers in the service industry and various other sectors have had no choice but to continue to make those daily commutes.
“I think it’s also important to preface all of this by saying we’re talking about a segment of the work population — there’s a lot of people who never had the luxury or ability" to work remotely, Kaplan said. “I feel I should just thank all the essential workers who have been doing all their time.”
But many white-collar employers and employees are in the midst of navigating what feels like a new era and a variety of factors to weigh.
“You save a lot of time and money [working at home],” Kaplan said. “Even for myself, I was coming in [to the studio today], and I’m like, ‘Oh, is there going to be bridge traffic?’ And I didn’t have to worry about bridge traffic for over a year.
“Part of that is just the convenience. Some people feel they could get a lot more done, and I can control my hours, and I don’t have someone looking over my shoulder. But then there’s also the comfort [level]: Do you shake hands? What’s it going to be like being in meetings again? Just interactions. … Is it going to be safe? Are people vaccinated?”
Kaplan offered suggestions for workers with concerns, including one caller in University City who explained that she got a new job about a year ago, during the pandemic — with people she’s never worked with in person before.
“There’s no returning to office for me,” the caller, Katherine, said in a voicemail. “I’m really kind of nervous about it; I’m going to the office full time starting, I think, July 1st.”
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On top of experiencing anxiety, Katherine said she’s also sad to see one of her pandemic hobbies come to an end: baking sourdough bread.
“I would probably just say somewhat comically but also honestly: Bring a couple loaves of bread in — that would be really one great way for people to start liking you,” Kaplan suggested.
He noted that his department at SLU had a new hire over the past year, a faculty member who not only started during the pandemic but moved to St. Louis during that time. Her new colleagues tried to make her welcome.
"We made sure that we tried to do some chats and stuff. But it’s hard. You’re a stranger — but not a stranger,” Kaplan said. “But I think everyone is aware of that and should be making the extra effort. … Just treat it sort of like your first day. Hopefully go out to lunch with somebody, make sure that you have some coffee time.”
The conversation also included a call from Jennifer, a local HR manager tasked with managing the return-to-worksites effort in her own organization.
“I really encourage employers to ask themselves the question: Why do we need people to come back? In some cases we do, but [one] thing the pandemic has taught us is that people can be trusted to do their jobs,” Jennifer said.
“They can be trusted to do them outside of the confines of a traditional office, and from a talent pool perspective, we have an ability to not only retain the great talent we have but also to attract new talent and better talent in some cases even more geographically than we did before. Because my organization is a mixture of in-office, completely virtual and hybrid. And giving employees the chance to decide which ones they want to be, based on what’s possible in their role, is so important.”
That perspective resonated with Kaplan.
“Too many managers haven’t trusted their workers — that’s why they’ve been so resistant in the first place to telework,” the professor said.
Shelly, an IT manager in Clayton, also called in to the show.
“While I sympathize with everyone working from home, I cannot wait for everyone to get back in the office,” Shelly said. “There’ve been a lot of unique challenges with people using their home Wi-Fi and personal machines.”
Team-building also is easier in person, Kaplan noted.
“It’s much harder to do on-the-job training when you are not co-located with the other person,” he said.
Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University, also offered thoughts.
“I can totally understand why people are anxious and why people might feel like it isn’t as easy as people are saying,” Gold said. “I think we forget that work and going back to work isn’t like pressing play on a remote control and everything goes back to the way it was. Work looks different, we feel different, and there are a lot of things we haven’t talked about out loud, like what the year’s been like for us or what work looks like for us.”
She suggested being kind to oneself throughout the various shifts underway.
“Maybe there are things about remote work that we actually did like — see if we can incorporate that into our days moving forward somehow. … Realize that it might not be as easy as we thought it would be, but it’s nice that we’re being able to start moving forward and having hope and having it be more of a positive experience,” Gold said. “I think baby steps are also nice and not having to go full force into Fear Factor mode.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.