It may not feel like it on any given day but, eventually, COVID-19 will be an unpleasant memory. What may remain, however, is a radically different workplace, one focused on the physical and mental health of employees.
Ironically, the need to work from home means that the office gym, cafeteria or foosball table in a central area — all amenities designed to create community — are useless. Instead, employers are providing virtual amenities that could help keep staff loyalty and even draw them back to the office when the coronavirus pandemic subsides.
According to McKinsey research, 80% of people questioned report that they enjoy working from home. Forty-one percent say that they are more productive than they had been before and 28% percent that they are as productive, the research firm wrote in a June 2020 article. As employees have learned to work from home, they will want some of the home amenities they’ve become used to when they return to the office. (Expect Zoom happy hours to continue.)
The result: from virtual coffee meetings to subsidizing health-related apps, employers are using tech to keep staff together even when they’re physically apart, observed Holly Williamson, design director at Nelson Worldwide.
“We have many clients who are trying to wrap their hands around all of this, but it comes down to three pillars: community and culture, convenience and mentoring and professional development,” Williamson said. “Those are the three things that help bridge working from home and when we return to the office. Overarching all three of those pillars will be wellness and technology.”
Even as recently as a year ago, she notes, wellness would have been a separate fourth pillar, Williamson observed. However, she has come to realize that a focus on health and wellness must be integrated throughout the other three. Fortunately, eliminating a commute for most people has helped.
“We’re getting a lot of time back in our day. But the time we get back that we’re not commuting brings us to some of the wellness items, such as Calm, Peloton or Fitbit,” she observed. “All are stretching their boundaries, but they must be integrated into our current lifestyle. We’re not just working from home anymore. This is a new lifestyle that’s being created because of the pandemic. If you can encourage your people to use calm.com daily to meditate 15 minutes a day, that’s wonderful. Or go for a walk and get out and use the app to challenge yourself.”
It can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. Amenities must allow the user to customize them to some degree.
“The variety and the choice is why you want to come to the office,” Williamson said. “You need the calmness and the meditation but also to be able to get your energy out. The other apps that I think are helpful are the commuting apps.”
Convenience, another pillar, factors into all areas. Think of concierge service-type apps that can schedule doctor appointments, food delivery, order office supplies or corporate gifts. Virtual doctor appointments also fit into this category.
The third pillar, professional development and mentoring, can be supported by offering master classes that can tap into the employee’s creativity or further their career with additional training. In fact, Nelson itself has needed to onboard new hires throughout the pandemic, learning what works in the virtual world and what doesn’t.
The key, however, is not to be tied to a computer all day — and night. Flexible hours should not mean that the workday doesn’t end. Fortunately, Williamson said, clients and staff are learning when to turn off.
“One of our clients has actually set boundaries, that there are to be no work calls after 5 p.m.,” she said. “It’s nice when a client sets the tone for how they want people to work. While the flexibility is nice, if there are parameters around it, it is a wonderful thing to hear.”
In addition, employers must also achieve more of a work/life balance, including by allowing staff to indulge their passions as well as fulfilling professional responsibilities.
“The important thing to remember is that virtual amenities don’t need to be in front of the computer,” Williams said. “You need time away from technology. So the fact that some of our clients are offering a creative day or two here and there to allow staff to explore their passions, whether it’s gardening or pottery, to encourage them to bring out their best without taking PTO or sick days.”
Add in the apps that help with both physical and mental, and people will want to return to the office.
“A healthy employee is a happier person,” she said. “These aren’t extravagant, but it goes a long way to make people feel more excited about being there. It goes back to attracting and retaining employees, and the more you can differentiate yourself from other employers, the better.”