Updated: Dec 13, 2022
If years were rated like restaurants, 2020 would receive a one-star rating; with comments like “I chose one star, because a half star wasn’t an option”. The long shadow cast by the COVID-19 pandemic, transformed employee relations in corporate America. The diminished supply of available resources, with steady demand, spawned a paradigm shift toward requiring employers to entertain the previously unattended motivations of the majority; or the average worker. This post-shutdown boost to significance afforded options to workers. Workers sought better wages and flexible work arrangements while some employers resisted.
In 2021, “People don’t want to work” the battle cry of distant, bewildered employers, echoed from major media sources. Consider the timing of this messaging in its full context. According to the CDC, in 2021 over four hundred thousand Americans or more than the entire population of Staten Island died from COVID-19, in addition to the more than three hundred thousand deaths in 2020. By the end of 2021, over seven hundred thousand fallen Americans left families, friends and most certainly jobs.
Of the employees who remained, despite what is said under duress while interviewing, every employee does not aspire to climb the corporate ladder. Corporations are microcosms of society. There are high, middle and low performers in both. Corporate America’s has had a long-standing love affair with the “hard working” high performers who have an agenda: to be recognized, get paid more money and then promoted. If the focus is on top performers, what motivates the majority of employees? Diligent employers extrapolated lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic: commutes are exhausting, there are few jobs where there is no disease risk, and work is not affected when employees work from home.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, American employees demonstrated they can and will do their jobs without in-person supervision. The flawed logic of employers who asserted employee performance is affected by work location, are either unaware or willfully to ignore the realities of in office work. Picture it, an office before shut-down, Fridays were the worst day to be in an office. Sparse employee attendance due to summer vacations inspire productive mornings. But after a few hours of focused work, the real work is done. Many spend the remainder of the afternoon playing professional cat and mouse: long lunches, water cooler chatter, and random online searches to pass time while presenting as “busy”. This posture is crucial, considering at any time, the unassuming yet professionally friendly boss will casually walk by chatting with everyone, noticing everything. Unspoken professional persona etiquette dictates it’s better not to get caught red-handed searching the internet; as the expectation of a professionally contrite, yet thorough explanation is too mortifying for the casual impertinence of a Friday afternoon. This fictional typical Friday example, provides perspective into realities of office work. In reality, working in an office does not guarantee productivity.
Why is physical work location being debated? Studies have shown remote employee productivity is on par with their in-person performance. In his research David Powell, president of the productivity intelligence company Prodoscore said “After evaluating over 105 million data points from 30,000 U.S.-based Prodoscore users, we discovered a five percent increase in productivity during the pandemic work from home period”. An internet search can reveal a plethora of studies extolling the benefits of remote work; improved physical health, mental health, overall job satisfaction and work life balance among them. The issue is not productivity.
Prior to the pandemic, with a scarcity of “good jobs”, corporate American management reveled in an era of: “My way or the highway” style bargaining. Mid pandemic, the employees who remained had options. Visionary employers assumed competitive compensation, and benefits beyond pizza parties. Alas, in capitalist society “Supply and Demand” is more reality than theory. Thus, when there were more options, many employees “chose the highway”.
Disagreeing and subsequent compromise is inherently American. The pandemic produced a diminished supply of qualified employees.To attract and maintain talent, employers must negotiate to be competitive. History should fondly recount this paradigm shift towards reciprocity in corporate America as the pandemic’s silver lining.