FaceTime Is the New Face Time. And We Cannot Turn Back Time.

Many business leaders talk with enthusiasm about remote workers returning to on-site work. The enthusiasm to return to the “new normal” is genuine. Indeed, most leaders have a healthy dose of optimism.

But many remote workers have very different feelings. Working at home is their new normal and, for many, returning to the workplace feels, well, abnormal. Feeling ranges from ambivalence to abject anxiety to anything but enthusiastic.

I have discussed this with some clients who have said they have not heard such hesitation from their people. To the contrary, they hear shared excitement about returning to the workplace. 

I don’t question their data points, but I am not sure they have all the necessary data. Individuals tend to tell leaders what they think they want to hear. Yet every strong leader knows that a good friend will tell them what they may not want to hear.

I want to be that good friend and tell you what some of your employees may not be sharing. I speak for myself in theory, but not in reality: 

  • I feel very fortunate to have a job and know that I am privileged to be able to work remotely.
  • I struggle with those who complain about the struggles of remote work when interacting with onsite workers who have not had the same ability to mitigate safety risk.
  • I worry about the risks of onsite work if safety precautions are not followed assiduously. And I believe the more workers on site, the greater the risk. 

Let me go further: 

  • I miss my colleagues, but I also find myself having warmer calls than I did before. Nice to see faces on Zoom, too!
  • I don’t miss the commute, parking, etc. I love the extra day I have discovered not only to work but also to live beyond work.
  • I am much more productive at home. I love being able to have 6 a.m. calls while sitting in my home office rather than while driving into work. 

Of course, others feel differently. I respect and understand that. But I suspect those who want to return to the workplace are less muted than those who are more reluctant.

Having said that, I expect to return to the workplace, clients, etc., just not every day. I was in the office last week, and I am having socially–distant coffees with clients this month. But each coffee means that I need to dress up big time: chinos and an oxford shirt. 

Which leads me to a temporary detour: I remember when casual Fridays first emerged. Some business leaders expressed apoplectic fear that it was at the end of the business world.

Well, the world did not come to an end. Indeed, after business casual became an acceptable choice, we saw the introduction, dare I say, of blue-jeans Fridays. Again, the world did not come to an end. 

While work has become more demanding, our clothing choices are more forgiving. For some, professionally casual means more comfortable and, therefore, more productive. But what does this have to do with remote work? 

When employees first asked to work remotely, many employers resisted. It just can’t work.

With some trepidations, employers opened the door just a bit. And then a bit more. But many remain skeptical. Can one really work at home and still walk the dog?

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Then came COVID-19. Economic survival meant embracing remote work. It became unthinkable not to embrace what had been the unthinkable: remote work whenever reasonably possible. Without remote workers, even more companies would have ceased to exist. 

FaceTime has replaced face time. And we cannot turn back time. 

Today, there still are good reasons to minimize the number of people on site. Just as we went from yellow to green, we flirt now in some areas with going back to yellow. So remote work remains necessary. 

But there may come a time when we are, or at least think we are, evergreen. Even then, leaders should remain open to remote work as a choice where reasonably possible. We know from the pandemic that “reasonably possible” is broader than any of us previously could have conceived. 

Of course, there are some positions for which remote work is not viable except in the exception. Further, some employees will want to work on site, even when they could work at home. 

The same principles apply to workplace attire. Even with business casual as a choice for most, some positions require business attire virtually every day. Similarly, some employees prefer business attire even when the circumstances don’t require it. 

Within reason, it comes down to giving employees choices about what they wear, when they work, and now where they work. The constant is the bottom line: the need to meet, better yet exceed, expectations. 

Time to sign off. Need to jump on the elliptical before my 8 a.m. call. 

Jonathan A. Segal is a partner at Duane Morris LLP in the Employment, Labor, Benefits and Immigration Practice Group. He is also the managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute, which provides training for HR professionals, in-house counsel, benefits administrators, and managers at Duane Morris, at client sites, and by way of webinar on myriad employment, labor, benefits and immigration matters. Read Jonathan's blog at the Duane Morris Institute or follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_HR_Law.

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