Returning to the Office in a Post COVID World: What's Happening?

It's the beginning of Q4 2021 and organizations are still dealing with the "new normal" of the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizations are trying to ensure workplaces are safe for returning workers — a task that has only become more complex with the emergence of the Delta variant.

In order to create safe workplaces, many organizations have opted for hybrid work environments in which both in-person and remote work is combined, and the public sector is no different. Here are some of today's trends regarding returning to the office as well as those forecasted for 2022 and beyond.

Current Trends of Returning to In-Person Office Working

The Office of Personnel Management continues to encourage organizations and agencies to re-design remote work policies based on the lessons we've learned during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, as former Department of Homeland Security Chief Human Capital Officer Jeff Neal notes, a little under half of all federal workers have job responsibilities that allow them to work from home. This creates an issue of employee morale for those who are unable to work from home due to their work responsibilities.

So what's next for governmental agencies? Neal explains it's likely a "hybrid solution," a combination of what agencies were doing before the pandemic and today's solutions to keeping employees safe from COVID, such as remote work options. After all, the biggest concern is safety for the public and employees, as many people in the country are still unvaccinated.

And there is a notable silver lining to all of this. Teresa Gorton, the President of the National Academy of Public Administration, said that despite the challenges of pivoting to remote work, there is an opportunity for public sector organizations to improve how services are delivered to the public and "fundamentally reimagine" what it means to work for the federal government and other public sector agencies.

Trends of Hybrid Working Models in Q4 of 2021

Returning to pre-pandemic work solutions has not been as easy as some hoped, thus leading to the hybrid working model for many organizations. Some interesting trends have emerged as a result:

1. Many Small Businesses Are More Comfortable Staying Remote

A survey by RingCentral showed that many small and medium organizations embraced a hybrid work model. Sixty-seven percent of these leaders claimed they don't anticipate their organizations returning to an entirely in-person workforce.

2. Organizations Outside of America Are More Comfortable with Remote Work

In November 2020, The Conference Board surveyed more than 1,500 C-Suite executives from countries worldwide to see if returning to work in the office was a priority. 22 percent of American executives stated it was a priority, compared to only 5 percent of executives from other countries. Most organizations in Germany and Japan are content with only working from home or a hybrid workplace solution.

3. The Office Environment is Still Evolving

One major reason for organization leaders to bring their employees back to work is that the office still exists. Many businesses are spending large sums of money to lease an office. Organizations feel pressured to bring people back to the office when in reality, if they reimagined the workforce and listened to employees, they may consider other options. They could likely significantly lower their overall costs too.

HR Policies in a Post-COVID World

As policies change to meet the needs of a different work environment, communication is key. It’s critical that HR explains any new changes to policies and why they are important, as transparency is key in a dynamic work environment. Plus, some policy adoptions like mandatory vaccination and testing for COVID are sensitive subjects. It’s vital that employees feel heard and their opinion matters.

It's also imperative to include all employees and managers in communication plans, including contractors, so they understand the safety processes and requirements for the workplace. Likely those safety processes have changed to include different cleaning and inspection procedures to make sure the environment is safe for everyone. Employees and managers need to understand these changes and how they affect them.

Potential Work Trends to Look Out for in 2022

2022 will likely see even more public sector organizations opt for the hybrid work models, as organizations will be better able to develop solutions and policies for these types of workplaces.

Transparency will also continue to be critical as it was when remote work began because it's a necessity for a physically divided workforce. To perform at their best, employees must know what management expects of them. Frequent check-ins will be key.

The office workplace is ever-changing, so workplace solutions should be flexible and adapt to changes. Future trends will likely reflect this as medical professionals continue to learn more about COVID-19 and ways to keep people safe. Employee evaluations will also need to reflect these changes as the old ways of performance management don't always work as well in a hybrid work world.

Change management can be a considerable challenge in the public sector, and the COVID-19 crisis is certainly no exception. But as long as HR strategies change to reflect current world situations, managing the workplace in a post COVID world can be successful.

Regina W. Romeo

Ms. Romeo has more than 20 years of experience in public sector human resources as an analyst, manager and director. In her role as Chief Human Resources Officer, she is responsible for managing the day-to-day HR operations and organizational development for CPS while also consulting and managing special projects for clients. Regina has worked for both large and small public sector agencies and brings a unique perspective and real-world experience to her role.

About CPS HR Consulting

CPS HR Consulting is a self-supporting public agency providing a full range of integrated HR solutions to government and nonprofit clients across the country.  Our strategic approach to increasing the effectiveness of human resources results in improved organizational performance for our clients.  We have a deep expertise and unmatched perspective in guiding our clients in the areas of organizational strategy, recruitment and selection, classification and compensation, and training and development.