Work Shift: Will WFH be the legacy of Covid-19?

Bob Vitale
The Rhodes Tower, with 40 floors and 28 elevators, is the quintessential large office setting. It's a place under construction--physically and metaphorically.

Sean Lane hates the thought of “working from home,” “working remotely,” telecommuting or any other term you might use.

At Olive, the medical software company he founded in 2012, you’re either working or you’re not. You’re either on the grid, to use the company lingo, or you’re off. If you’re on the grid, it doesn’t matter to Lane or anyone else at Olive whether you’re at home, at a Starbucks or on a beach, in Columbus or California or anywhere else you choose to call home.

“We’re out of the geography business,” says Lane, whose late-May announcement of a new work model for Olive’s 240 employees was accompanied by a decision to abandon plans to build a new, bigger headquarters in Columbus. 

“It’s a radical change,” he continues, thinking of the future of work if others share his ideas. “The identity of a company will no longer be the community in which it operates. The limitations of a company’s recruitment and all those things will no longer be a factor. ‘How are you going to get people to move to Columbus?’ is the story I always had to tell. Now it’s not even a thing, and wow, that’s a whole set of limitations that’s gone. For a family, where you live and why you live there, mostly driven by employment, completely vanishes.

“It’s freedom to roam around the country. You don’t have to stay in a place. You can move.

None of this radical rethinking of the workplace would have taken place at Olive if not for the global pandemic of Covid-19 and the sudden shift in where and how people work. Lane was decidedly skeptical of such ideas. But the company, like so many other office-based enterprises, had no choice in March other than to leap fully into a remote-working mode they merely had been dabbling with before. 

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And Lane, who previously thought only office environments could fuel the level of energy and collaboration he considers vital in his company, discovered quickly that people’s location wasn’t the key he thought it was. Traffic on Slack, the communications platform of choice at Olive, more than doubled. Everyone adapted quickly. 

“Before this, I believed that everybody needed to be in the same building,” he says. “I thought a lot about (remote work), but I was pretty dogmatic against it. I believed that if you had two companies, all things being equal, and one was remote and the other one was together, that the one together would always win.”

Watershed moment

Across Central Ohio, the nation and the world, necessity is now giving birth to reinvention—or at least a re-examination—of the workplace. Business leaders and experts say lessons learned from Covid-19 seem likely to reshape the ways we do business, much as other watershed events did.

In the 1940s, for example, World War II reshaped ideas about women in the workplace after women took factory and office jobs to help the war effort. The rise of factories during the Industrial Revolution led to the eight-hour workday and 40-hour week. When the elevator was perfected in the mid-19th century, office buildings were born and offices on higher floors became desirable.

More on this topic: Pandemic joins 100 years of disruption in the workplace

The idea of where we report to work appears to be the biggest lasting change on the post-Covid horizon. Time will tell whether other temporary adjustments become cultural shifts. Are handshakes, water-cooler conversations and communal candy jars dead?

“There have been other moments in time—world wars, advances in technology and other big events—that permanently shifted how society operates,” says Alex Fischer, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, the organization of 70-some area CEOs. “Most certainly this is one of those moments as it relates to how people do their work. This may be one of the bigger points of disruption.”

Fischer doesn’t sound too worried about what lies ahead for Columbus in a future no one saw coming just a few months ago. Others predict a real-estate glut if businesses en masse forgo physical space for remote setups. They fear business travel and convention and conference business drying up if people stick to teleconferencing.

Fischer, however, focuses on the upside of upheaval. “It means there will be all sorts of innovations, cost efficiencies, better ways of doing things that will rapidly advance. From that innovation, new companies will grow.”

While some foresee the demise of the office—or at least the demise of large office buildings in favor of multiple sites—Fischer predicts greater attention to space-making in those that remain. David Staley, an associate professor of history and a futurist at Ohio State University, says open office spaces likely won’t survive because of the Covid-era focus on social distancing and physical barriers. A 2019 study published in the Harvard Business Review found them an actual hindrance to employee interaction, anyway.

“As much as I hate to say it,” Staley says, “I think cubes are coming back.”

Neither working environment will make a comeback at Healthy Roster, a 5-year-old health care technology company whose 20 employees began working from home in March. By April, co-founder and CEO Nathan Heerdt realized how well everyone was functioning in a setup considered temporary. By May, after surveying the staff, he decided to give up the company’s office in Dublin. By June, employees were taking desks, monitors and whatever office equipment they wanted for their now-permanent home setups.

Gone are the cost of monthly rent for the company and the headache of daily commutes for its employees. Healthy Roster will provide access to coworking sites for people who need a more traditional office environment for certain tasks or who just want to get out of the house for the day. Companywide meetings currently take place over Zoom, but Heerdt plans in-person townhalls and lunches twice a month when it’s safe again.

It will be important to maintain a feeling of camaraderie, he says. He realizes Zoom just isn’t the same. The gaming website Rock Paper Shotgun reported in May that some companies began conducting their meetings as cowboys sitting around a campfire in the Wild West game Red Dead Redemption 2. 

“Every time you go through these paradigm shifts, there’s a bit of nostalgia for the good things you enjoyed,” Heerdt says. “People gained immense satisfaction from working around people they liked and doing things like grabbing lunch and grabbing coffee together. We had seven to 12 people who’d walk to Starbucks every day right around the same time. We had free coffee at the office, but it was about being together.”

Gallup polls since March show that a majority of people who’ve been working from home during the pandemic would prefer to continue in that mode. The polls also show, though, that the number of people who want to return to the office jumped from 38 percent to 47 percent in just three weeks of permanent working from home. 

“There’s a big element of socializing that you miss doing,” Heerdt says. “That’s why I don’t think you can do this without that added element.”

Working from home was commonplace two centuries ago, Staley points out. When people were farmers or merchants or practiced a trade, they often lived where they worked, and the boundaries between the two were fluid. The rise of factories and offices separated work and home, he says, but the distinctions now seem to be blurring once again.

Brian Zuercher, co-founder and CEO of Columbus-based work-experience consultant Hopewell, says he hopes the Covid experience breaks businesses out of a one-place-fits-all mindset. Hopewell studies work habits and experiences the way others study consumer preferences and behavior. The idea is that people who work in energy-boosting environments—they vary for everyone—are happier and more productive. 

“We’re finding some pretty amazing things about productivity and satisfaction,” Zuercher says. “It took what probably would have taken 10 years and shortened it into three months.”

Nationwide Children’s Hospital conducted just 19 telemedicine visits in 2019—and more than 130,000 from mid-March to mid-June. CEO Tim Robinson says he hopes insurance-reimbursement policies that were eased during the shutdown of all but essential in-person medical visits will remain amenable to telemedicine. Patients and providers have found the format more convenient and efficient in many instances, he says.

“I think everybody’s mindset had shifted. Those change-management issues that are usually more difficult to address got expedited.”

In April, Nationwide CEO Kirt Walker announced that the insurance and financial services company would shut down 2 million square feet of office space in Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin and move more than 3,800 employees in those locations to permanent remote-working status. The company will keep five main campuses: Downtown Columbus and Grandview Yard; Des Moines, Iowa; San Antonio; and Scottsdale, Arizona.

About 30 percent of Nationwide employees will be working remotely after the shift is completed in November.

What Zuercher hopes comes from companies’ Covid experience is true autonomy for workers, not just a replication of the office, complete with old-school structures and demands, at kitchen tables or in spare bedrooms. Those locked into old structures, he says, sometimes can’t get past the experiences from their own career paths.

“There’s a rite of passage some have: ‘I came to the office at 6 a.m. and worked until 8 p.m.’ When you’re not coming in every day, some people feel you don’t want to work very hard. There’s that psychological thing they need to get over.”

Instead, Zuercher encourages people to think back further than their first jobs to their college days. He points out how students on a college campus have specific tasks to accomplish, whether a term paper or a project or a good grade. There are times they’re expected to be in class, and sometimes they’re expected to meet in groups or labs. There are places on campus designed to facilitate research or offer quiet or collaborative spaces, but students aren’t told where or when they need to do their work.

“That’s sort of the peak level of autonomy in our lives,” Zuercher says. “You’re getting stuff done and you’re learning about yourself and your skills and how you like to work. Then, ironically, you go to work and you’re told where to be and how to look and how to work.”

Lane doesn’t want that to be part of his job anymore as Olive’s CEO. As part of the company’s new on-the-grid-or-off-the-grid work model, the main office—its “central hub”—will remain in Columbus. There will be “substations” in cities with major clients or wherever 10 employees choose to call home. But employees can work from anywhere they choose.

“The most interesting dynamic has been, when I released the [new work model], people were talking like, ‘Hey, I need six more people to move to Savannah,” he said. “It’s like an employee-directed formation.”

An April survey of nearly 10,000 Central Ohio workers conducted by the Columbus Partnership found that 74 percent of people were working remotely. A survey in June by OSU’s Risk Institute found that 34 percent of businesses had found enough benefit from employees working remotely during the Covid shutdown to make it a more long-term arrangement.

As of late June, the Ohio Department of Administrative Services hadn’t made decisions about the long-term use of telecommuting, but it had not set a timeline for bringing thousands of state employees back into their offices, either. About 85 percent of the state workforce had been working from home at the height of Gov. Mike DeWine’s shelter-in-place order for Ohioans.

“The last 90 days have shown it can be done,” Department Director Matthew Damschroder says. “It will be like any kind of disrupting event in an economy; it will take time to find out how permanent that disruption becomes or what rebounds to being more normal. I would say based on our experience so far, some form of telecommuting will be a factor for a big chunk of the state workforce in the future.”

Like other employers, state government must weigh any desire to bring workers back into offices against the cost of physically modifying workplaces to meet social-distancing recommendations. Options include staggered starting times—even with 28 elevators, traditional 8 a.m. arrivals for 40 floors of Rhodes Tower employees won’t keep people separated—and alternating in-office working days.

Telecommuting and other alternatives were under consideration before Covid-19, Damschroder says, because state government was seeking ways to make itself more attractive in a competitive labor market.

“The state moves a little slower,” he acknowledges. “No small reason is, if your neighbor’s a state employee and you see their car in the driveway all day and you don’t know that they’re telecommuting, your first question is, ‘Why is that state employee sitting home all the time?” 

Risk Institute Executive Director Phil Renaud says there are other factors businesses need to weigh as well. Cybersecurity—all security, really—becomes more complicated when employees are logging in, talking on the telephone or meeting in non-centralized locations. Security concerns with Zoom led organizations such as Google, NASA and the government of Taiwan to bar its use by employees this spring.

Also, Renaud said, employers are likely still on the hook for ensuring safe working environments even if they’re no longer providing the physical working space. 

“Now I’m transitioned to a home environment where Phil might be working from his couch with his legs curled up underneath him in an environment that may not be conducive to long-term ergonomic design,” he says. “How do I control that as an employer? There needs to be some sort of agreement between the associate and the company that says here’s the way business will be conducted between these particular hours.”

At Olive, Lane has been thinking about what will become of cost-of-living adjustments to workers’ pay. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told employees in May that as his company allows more people to work remotely, it will cut the salaries of those who move to cheaper areas. According to Sperling’s Best Places, Facebook’s median 2018 salary of $240,000 at its Bay Area headquarters would translate to $45,717 in Columbus. The main reason, it says: Central Ohio’s median home price of $213,000 is a far cry from the Bay Area’s $2.3 million.

“That’s not going to be the answer,” Lane says of Facebook’s sliding scale, which will require employees to report yearly where they’re calling home. “The answer is almost going to be a national pay scale. It is what it is, no matter where you live.”

As head of the Columbus Partnership, Fischer says he has spoken with numerous Central Ohio business leaders who plan to allow a greater number of their employees to work remotely. Technology has made it possible, he says, but Covid-19 and the nationwide reckoning on race and systemic racism seems also to have taught other lessons. 

“It feels like 2020 is going to be a monumental year that’s shifting society,” he says. “Everybody says we’re going to return to normal or a new normal. I think we’re going to return to the better new normal. It’s going to be a better way of working. It’s going to be a better way of treating people. It’s going to be a better way of hopefully dealing with our issues.”

Bob Vitale is a freelance writer.

Health Roster CEO Nathan Heerdt in his home office.