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What could happen to the workplace after more than a year at home

After a year of remote work, companies are figuring out the best ways to get their employees...
After a year of remote work, companies are figuring out the best ways to get their employees back in the office, if they even need to.(Staff)
Published: Jun. 7, 2021 at 6:01 AM AKDT|Updated: Jun. 7, 2021 at 7:12 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - With businesses opening back up, many of the employees who could work from home are working their way back to the office. However, there was a lot of time, effort, and money spent on making remote work possible across Alaska, and now there’s a lot of proof that companies can still be productive if their employees aren’t in the office.

While getting back to normal has been the hope for months now, it’s starting to seem that, moving forward, the workplace isn’t going to look the same as it did before the pandemic, according to local companies.

Ranea Saade, a shareholder and employment attorney with Littler Mendelson, said her clients have been wrestling with the best approach to get their employees back in the office with all the information about working from home that was generated because of the pandemic.

“Employers are trying to approach it with fresh eyes,” Saade said. “and I think unlike the past, employers are much more open to the notion of having flexible schedules or hybrid schedules where someone works from home part of the time and in the office part of the time.”

She said many of her clients have found that most employees who were able to work from home want to be able to have a hybrid model — the ability to work from home, while also being able to go into the office.

In a recent survey from her firm, they asked 1,160 in-house lawyers, C-suite executives, and human resources professionals about how employers and employees feel about getting back in the workplace.

The survey found that 71% of employees want a hybrid model, while 16% want to keep staying at home. Only 4% of employees surveyed wanted to go back into the office full time.

On the employer side, 55% of the companies surveyed said they will be moving forward with a hybrid model. Despite employee desires found in the survey, 28% of those businesses are having most employees return to full-time work in person work, and 7% are letting the employees continue to work remotely if they want.

Just 2% of the companies in the survey completely shifted to remote work, or planned to, and 8% of employers didn’t or couldn’t have employees work from home.

The trend of the hybrid model is making waves even in some of the bigger companies in Alaska like ConocoPhillips, according to HR Manager for the Alaska Division, Kathryn Johnson. She said the workers there have been back in the office since March, but they are going to move to a hybrid model in July.

Johnson explained not all ConocoPhillips workers were able to work at home, but the ones who did surpassed expectations.

“Speaking for our Anchorage office, we had just about all our employees working from home,” Johnson said, “We had the technology to be able to do that, obviously, but we were definitely challenged at first trying to find our rhythm. But I would say all our employees far exceeded what we were asking them to do.”

Saade said that was the case for many of her clients. Tough at first, but once they got remote work going, productivity was still possible.

Working from home proved better for some employees than others. Johnson said they found some people were better able to find a work-life balance with the remote model. However, Saade said that’s not always the case.

“None of the clients I work with have been able to approach this completely seamlessly,” she said. “There have been certain positions, or certain employees that have not been successful with working from home and they’ve had to adjust.”

Saade said the big problem in front of employers is the disconnect between what the business needs are and what the employee wants to do. The lack of daily commutes and ability to do a load of laundry during your lunch break really stuck with some people, it seems. On the other hand, some people feel like they need their office space in order to get work done.

However, if an employee wants to stay home and their boss want them back in the office, they don’t have many options except to return to the office unless they have a legitimate reason.

“Unless the person has a medical condition or other disability that requires an accommodation. They can request an accommodation from their employer to continue to work from home but, you know, they would have to work with their employer to identify what their needs were,” Saade said.

That’s not all there is to it, though, according to Saade. It’s a complex issue with a multi-layered analysis, she said. For example, an employer may have to extend the same ability to work from home to everybody to avoid discrimination and favoritism.

Not to mention, the employer would have to weigh the costs of remote equipment in the employee’s house. She said they would have to figure out how to approach liability insurance for those at home along with a number of other items that would need attention.

With all those considerations, as well as all the success of working from home during the pandemic, there’s the question of whether or not a company needs as much office space as it did before, if more people are working at home.

“I can’t see us reducing office space because we’re going to have that ability for people to come in or not,” Johnson said. “But certainly we could see other companies taking a different approach, and I think you would see a reduction in office space if you truly move to an approach where people work from home and didn’t have an office to go to.”

Overall, indications are that the workplace won’t be returning to “normal” the way it was before the pandemic, if it does at all. Saade said the vast majority of changes within companies are going to happen on a case-by-case basis depending on what the company wants.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Ranea Saade’s name.

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