Workplace Strategies for the Road to Recovery:

Jun 24, 2021


AMA researchers talked with executives about the plans they have for returning to the office.

It’s been more than a year since the COVID-19 crisis struck, forcing business professionals to adapt on a dime to working remotely, collaborating virtually, and staying focused and productive in the midst of upheaval and uncertainty. While many offices plan to reopen, few employees expect to return to what was business as usual before March 2020. Across industries and the country, even the best laid return-to-office plans remain a work in progress.

Most organizations do have a post- COVID return-to-work plan. In a recent survey on the subject, AMA asked members and seminar participants nationwide whether their company had a roadmap in place to “reopen” once stayat- home orders were suspended. Nearly 64 percent of participants responded yes, while just under 16 percent answered no. Close to 21 percent of participants, however, were unsure. Participants were also asked a critical question: How will your organization adjust to ongoing COVID-19 health concerns once employees return to your workplace? They were offered a variety of options and asked to select all that apply. Of the in-office strategies to be implemented in the near future, three stood out as the most common, based on participants’ responses.

In the weeks and months ahead, will those strategies change? Although it’s a positive step towards reconnecting families, revitalizing communities, and rekindling optimism, the recent CDC announcement that fully-vaccinated individuals do not need to practice social distancing—particularly, the widely reinforced COVID guidance to keep six feet of distance between people—or wear a mask in most situations might well complicate office re-openings. Will employers remain committed to enforcing social distancing protocols and mask mandates? Will employees with lingering COVID fatigue comply?

Practically, ethically, and legally speaking, how will organizations identify and deal with employees who are reluctant to get vaccinated? These are among the myriad questions facing senior leaders, middle managers, and frontline workers alike during the looming transition period.

To aggravate matters, many organizations lack a formal process for addressing their people’s concerns and easing their adjustment to an in-office routine after they’ve spent months getting comfortable with working from home—or anywhere they choose. When asked whether their organization would be conducting training to acclimate people back into office environments, less than a third of AMA’s survey participants responded in the affirmative and more than 50 percent answered “not sure.”

One long-term and widespread business outcome of the pandemic is certain: working remotely is not simply a trend that will fade away after COVID restrictions end. Working from home has been on the rise—in terms of its adoption rate by organization as well as, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics, sheer employee numbers— since the early 2000s. For both employers and employees, remote work has considerable benefits. Along with reductions in real estate, rental, and facility maintenance costs, organizations gain the ability to attract, hire, and maximize talent from all over the country, if not the world. Beyond eliminating the time and money spent on commuting, employees often enjoy increased flexibility and greater worklife balance. Yet, remote work can also create significant challenges for business leaders and managers in areas from teamwork to mentoring, from performance evaluation to data security. To keep talented people, minimize communication problems, strengthen camaraderie, and increase productivity, many organizations are embracing a hybrid of remote and onsite work.

In March 2021, AMA surveyed members and seminar participants nationwide about workplace strategies critical to their organization’s postpandemic health. The results offer a clear indication that remote work is here to stay, in some shape or form. Prior to COVID, 73 percent of participants worked in an office full-time. At the time of the survey, 56 percent of participants had shifted to working remotely full-time. When asked whether their business is considering going back into a physical office full-time, only 40 percent of participants answered yes. 25 percent of participants responded that their company does not intend to bring employees back onsite. And 35 percent of those surveyed were unsure about their organization’s future return-to-office plans.

As the results of AMA’s two most recent surveys clearly indicate, “not sure” is the answer that applies to much about the post-pandemic nature of work and the workplace. What is also clear from the responses of managers and business professionals: flexibility, collaboration, and human connections are critical to navigating the next “new normal” for their organization.

As businesses strive to keep moving forward, leaders at all levels need to stay on top of trends and take charge of developing skills to support their organization, their team, and their own career. AMA understands the needs of today’s managers and offers resources to help. Learning specific strategies to build a cohesive, inclusive, and productive team of employees can ease the complications and frustrations of managing a hybrid team. Becoming proficient at communicating virtually, up, down, and across the organization, can ensure that important messages get heard. And in the coming weeks and months, just about everyone could use some expert insights and practical guidance on building agility and managing through uncertainty.