The New Post-COVID Workplace
authors Eliot Sefrin | April 6, 2021
When COVID-19 unexpectedly forced millions of Americans to work from home in 2020, business owners and employees across the kitchen and bath landscape feared the unwanted specter of vanishing jobs, dislocation, uncertainty and millions of dollars in lost productivity.
Then something wholly unexpected happened: Work from home (WFH) proved to be among the pandemic- related developments that’s apparently yielding better results than initially expected. And now the WFH trend is likely to become a permanent component of the post-pandemic business strategy for dealers, designers, remodelers, distributors, manufacturers and others in the kitchen/bath product supply chain.
Indeed, according to an enlightening new study by The Conference Board, Inc., a New York-based research organization, a significant sea change has taken place in the past 12+ months across corporate America. And it may well be something that’s a long-term feature of the U.S. labor market, a significant COVID-19 legacy.
To wit, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer than 10% of U.S. white-collar employees worked primarily from home, conventional wisdom holding that most employees would be undisciplined, difficult to manage and far less productive absent of their usual workplace culture.
However, precisely the opposite has occurred.
According to The Conference Board, most surveyed companies report that not only have they achieved higher rates of productivity with a WFH workforce, but they’ve also accrued significant benefits – including reduced spending on office, showroom and factory space, a significant expansion of the talent pool from which to hire, and improved employee satisfaction and retention. Many employees, for their part, have reaped the rewards of greater flexibility, reduced commuting costs and a more satisfying work/home balance.
And now, this sharp increase in the number of people working from home apparently has the potential to transform the U.S. economy, the American workplace and society as a whole, The Conference Board says.
For instance, if current trends continue, millions of U.S. workers are likely to relocate in the coming years in search of lower living expenses and a higher quality of life. In fact, more than one-third of business leaders surveyed expect 40% or more of their workforce to be primarily remote after the pandemic subsides, compared to just 1 in 20 before COVID-19.
Already, we’re seeing a distinct suburban shift in homebuilding and purchasing, coupled with a move by homeowners to expand and rearrange floor plans, and create home offices and other specialty rooms as a result of the telecommuting trend. Kitchen and bath design firms, like other businesses, have also demonstrated during the pandemic that they’re fully capable of maintaining business operations, conducting showroom consultations, marketing their services, expanding their outreach and protecting their profits by skillfully utilizing a combination of WFH employees and cutting-edge digital tools.
As employees continue to disperse beyond traditional commuter zones, companies may find it increasingly difficult to reverse their decision to embrace remote WFH, The Conference Board says. In other words, the current trend – or, more likely, some hybrid form of it – may well become permanent.
All of this will require a whole new set of ground rules. While WFH has proven largely successful thus far, whether it can be as effective in post-pandemic economic conditions remains an open question. Potential pitfalls include a lack of community, teamwork and face-to-face interaction; an inability by some employees to create a productive work-from-home environment; the danger that unmonitored performance and reduced supervision can result in an eventual loss of productivity, and the possibility of employee isolation, anxiety, alienation and burnout.
Management will need to keep a careful eye on all of this as it seeks the optimal balance of remote work in the years ahead. If WFH is truly to remain more than a passing fad, business leaders must be armed with a trusted set of protocols for communication, connectivity and productivity. They must also be prepared to address communication and coordination challenges, be cognizant of the inextricable link between workplace culture and worker satisfaction, and help WFH employees manage their schedule, minimize distractions and maintain a strict line between their personal and professional lives. ▪