Who Benefits in the Workplace Post-COVID?

William “Ivey” MacKenzie headshot

Huntsville was recently recognized as the second most prepared midsize metro nationally to work from home. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the University of Chicago was employed to create a measure composed of the percentage of workers in remote-friendly jobs, households with computers and broadband internet, households with at least one spare bedroom that could be used as a home office and the median number of rooms per person in the household.

Looking at these factors, it is easy to understand why Huntsville scored so highly. Huntsville’s knowledge-based economy lends itself to employees working remotely. Technical and scientific companies rely on employee ideas rather than their physical presence to secure a competitive advantage in the market. Many employed in a knowledge-based economy do not require access to specialized equipment or machinery. The availability of technology, such as broadband internet, makes collaboration with colleagues increasingly easy.

Because of its high median wages, many residents of Huntsville are more likely than in similar-sized metros to have access to home computers and have home offices or extra space to set up a place to work in their homes. They also benefit from relatively inexpensive fiber internet access.

The pandemic has had a huge impact on businesses and their employees across the entire State of Alabama. The concern for employee safety in the early stages of the pandemic pushed many companies to go remote. In the early stages of the pandemic, a Gallup poll indicated that 51% of U.S. workers reported they were exclusively working from home.

- Sponsor -

Keeping a Positive Workplace Culture

In a post-COVID workplace where more employees work remotely, companies will need to be proactive in establishing and preserving a positive organizational culture. Culture is a very important asset for successful businesses. If employees are unable to interact with one another in meaningful ways, that can negatively impact an organization’s culture. A negative culture can lead to increased employee turnover and decreased performance.

In fact, employee culture is so important that some companies have even studied their onsite cafeteria waiting lines to make certain they are long enough to promote meaningful employee interactions. A quick, spontaneous conversation in the hallway has tremendous value for some organizations’ culture.

It is also difficult for a company to require employees to work onsite while competitors allow employees to work remotely. In a recent company survey I conducted, multiple employees wanted to retain their ability to work from home in the future — a first for the firm that was studied. To stay competitive in the labor market, I believe we will see employers increasingly allow employees to work from home. That change will promote more efficient use of business workspace and could result in smaller facilities if more employees are regularly working from home.

Prior to the pandemic, some firms were already embracing flexibility and even changing office layouts to respond to fewer workers physically being present in the office. Post-pandemic, the layout of offices may change to accommodate more shared workspace among employees who are not coming in daily.

The Upside to Employee Travel Decreases

The pandemic has clearly impacted travel and tourism in our state and others. There has been a decrease in employee travel in 2020 and many employees have for the first time attended conferences virtually. While virtual conferences may be cost-effective, it is important to recognize that employee travel is often a desirable perk. While some companies may hope to reduce travel costs in the future, many employees will still want to travel to desirable locations, while less desirable destinations may see an increase in remote meetings.

Many firms may see increases in productivity if meetings remain virtual and workers utilize travel time in more productive ways. Many employers may also benefit from less absenteeism from workers if working from home becomes an option. Systems that allowed employees to work from home during COVID-19 also allow employers to continue operations during emergency circumstances, including weather-related events.

Bedroom Communities Could Benefit Post-COVID

As employees begin to work remotely more often, there are secondary effects that could impact communities in Alabama and globally. Community infrastructure needs will change. Commute times will decrease. Bedroom communities will see more development to serve workers looking for a quick bite to eat for lunch, while restaurants that were struggling in the heart of the city may never see their customer base return to pre-COVID levels. Some communities will see workers move further away in search of affordable housing, while states like Alabama may benefit from new residents who are attracted to the state’s beauty and reduced cost of living.

Among the many positives for employees in a flexible working arrangement are the time saved by eliminating commutes and being present for their children. Worker anecdotes about their experiences often include the benefits of being able to eat better, increase physical activity and generally adopt healthier lifestyles while working from home.

Potential Pitfalls of Remote Working

However, it is important to recognize that not all employees have the same access to the internet and computers and not all jobs can be performed remotely. That disparity has the potential to create a second class of workers in companies and could even create legal issues for employers. As well, there will still be many workers in traditional work contexts, such as manufacturing, who will never move to a remote work model.

Another possible pitfall is that employees who work from home may get left behind. They can miss out on the day-to-day exchange of information and being off site could negatively impact them when it comes to promotion opportunities. When daycare centers and schools were closed, having young children at home negatively impacted many workers’ productivity. Remote workers often find it harder to disconnect from work, since they no longer have a commute to transition their focus to their personal life.

COVID-19 has rapidly changed the employer-employee relationship in many business categories that rely on knowledge-based workforces. It forced employers to rethink the nature of how work gets done and it prompted employees to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to become effective virtual workers who are increasingly comfortable meeting virtually. Clearly the pandemic has changed the nature of work, and business must adapt to meet these changes.

William “Ivey” MacKenzie is an associate professor of management in the College of Business at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. His research in the field of strategic human resources has been published in outlets such as the Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Business Research and Personnel Review. He has extensive experience developing and analyzing employee surveys for organizations.

The latest Alabama business news delivered to your inbox