When COVID-19 swept around the world earlier this year there was no telling exactly what affect the pandemic would have on modern workplace culture. Now, over seven months after the start of the great remote work migration, the question is no longer “What changes will COVID-19 inflict on workplace culture?” but, “How will we continue to adapt to these changes?”

COVID-19 has not only changed the way we work, but it has also changed what we expect from our employer, and in turn, it has evolved what our employer expects from us. Millions of workers and managers were tasked with adapting to remote work overnight, some for the first time. And now, as we look to a post-COVID-19 future, we are once again collectively tasked with adapting to new, unknown circumstances.

Before we move into the future, let’s reflect on the ways COVID-19 has changed the modern workforce for employees, HR teams, and remote managers.

How a Pandemic Changed the Way People Work

The most noticeable change that COVID-19 inflicted upon the current workforce is the drastic shift to remote work, with 70% of full-time workers in the U.S. working from home during COVID-19. While this change may be the most obvious, the Owl Labs State of Remote Work 2020 report also found that 1 in 5 people report working more during COVID-19.

On average, remote employees reported that this extra work looked like working an extra 26 hours each month during COVID-19, which is nearly an extra day each week. This overworking comes at no surprise when you take note of all of the additional challenges that come with being new to the work from home lifestyle. 

When asked what the top challenges they faced when working from home during COVID-19:

  • 62% said interruptions/being talked over during meetings
  • 59% mentioned background distractions from other participants
  • 57% found it challenging to stay focused
  • 57% found the audio quality of their video conferencing to be a factor
  • 56% found the video quality of their video conferencing to be challenging

Does your team have the tech they need to be successful at home? Check out our guide to video conferencing to explore the best tools and tech for remote workers.

Employee Concerns about Returning to the Office

In addition to new challenges for remote workers, COVID-19 has also introduced a new lineup of concerns for employees whose companies want them to return to the office. The new #1 priority for employees returning to the office is an increase in healthcare benefits. Without a comprehensive healthcare plan and the opportunity for flexible working hours, some organizations may find themselves having a difficult time retaining their employees.

It comes as no surprise that the top concern employees have with returning to the office is getting sick, followed closely by having to wear a mask all day. 

Top concerns for returning to the office:

  • Getting sick: 71%
  • Having to wear a mask all day: 65%
  • Sitting in a conference room or enclosed area: 62%
  • Crowds getting into/out of building: 61%
  • Employer wanting them to come back sooner than comfortable: 56%

With top companies announcing that they have indefinitely extended their remote work policies, for those workers who would rather avoid returning to the office there are ample job opportunities available that allow you to work from anywhere.

COVID Considerations for HR Teams

As workplace guidelines evolve to encapsulate COVID-19 health and safety regulations, as well as remote work and flexible schedule policies, HR teams are hard at work reevaluating existing policies and planning for the unknowable future of the pandemic. While COVID-19 did create new hurdles for HR teams to overcome, there are actionable steps that can be taken in regards to workplace safety.

The CDC has created a guide for implementing COVID-19 protocols in the workplace. Some of the COVID-19 considerations for HR teams include:

  • Creating new amendments to sick leave policies to best support those who show symptoms or may have come in contact with someone who has
  • Implementing new protocol for setting up employee workspaces
  • Ensuring that the approved disinfectants are used in the office
  • Screening employees upon entering the office building to ensure protection for any symptomatic and asymptomatic workers
  • Creating a policy for test availability that includes covering the costs of COVID-19 tests for employees

Perks + Benefits: 2020 Trends

It comes as no surprise that in the age of COVID-19 health insurance is a deciding factor when employees are contemplating their next career move, with 88% of survey respondents across all age groups considering health insurance critically important. Following health insurance, the benefits and perks that received the most importance were total compensation and a vacation policy.

And while remote work policies and flexible schedules used to be perks used to attract and retain top talent, as the future of work continues to be increasingly more virtual, offering work flexibility has evolved from a benefit to a necessity for some workers.

Benefits and perks in order of personal importance:

  • Health insurance: 88%
  • Total compensation: 87%
  • Vacation policy: 76%
  • Flexibility in when I work: 55%
  • Flexibility in where I work: 49%
  • Employee wellness programs: 44%
  • Education & training reimbursement: 37%
  • Student loan repayment: 19%
  • Onsite or subsidized child care: 18%

COVID Considerations for Remote Managers

As complicated as being a remote employee is right now—balancing your typical job responsibilities while navigating the added stress points of living during a global pandemic—it is even more complicated to be a remote manager. The responsibilities of remote managers have remained the same, with the inclusion of frequently guiding your team through uncharted territory. 

Remote managers should think of themselves as wilderness experts leading their crew through foreign terrain, but instead of dense forest or a rocky mountainside the terrain is working remotely during a worldwide health crisis.

In addition to your typical responsibilities as a remote manager, during COVID-19 it is also essential to:

Check in on team members

The first step to being a good team manager is to keep an open line of communication between you and your employees. Through the use of remote communication best practices you can not only receive project updates and field questions, but also check in on team members.

The key to a strong remote team is open communication that is built on a system of trust, and the best way to trust your remote team members is to show them that they can trust you. Here are a few ways that you can establish an open, trusting line of communication with your remote team members:

  • Set clear communication boundaries, such as when it is appropriate to contact one another with synchronous communication tools and when it is better to utilize asynchronous tools
  • Don’t let too many days go by without speaking directly to your team members, during a transitional period you should take time each day to reach out and connect, even if it is just to say hello
  • While email is a tried and true form of communication, overuse can feel impersonal. Instead, reach out through a more casual communication tool like Slack or a quick video call to form a connection
  • Foster an environment of camaraderie on your remote teams by hosting regularly scheduled virtual happy hours where team members and yourself can chat about topic unrelated to your current projects

Enforce work-life balance

For remote employees who are new to the work from home lifestyle, they may be struggling separating their work-life from their home-life. In addition to setting clear communication boundaries with your team members, here are a few other ways in which you can enforce a strong work-life balance for your remote employees:

  • Encourage them to create a structured work schedule so they can have a clear delineation between when they are on the clock and off of it
  • 8 out of 10 full time workers report wanting one meeting free day per week for heads down catching up on work
  • Have them set boundaries in their home when they can, such as creating a designated work space that is separate from where they normally spend time in their home
  • Encourage them to take work breaks just as they would in the office, such as taking a stroll around the block instead of popping by the watercooler to chat with a friendly coworker
  • Enforce a marked end of the day so coworkers aren’t tempted to continue working past when they would if they were in the office, this way they can avoid burnout and visual a clear separation between being at work and being at home

For a complete look at how the state of remote work has changed this past year, check out the Owl Lab’s State of Remote Work: Covid Edition.

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