University of Tennessee

Post-COVID Workplace: Back to Business as Usual?

January 27, 2022

In 2020, the pandemic upended the global economy — and melted resistance to remote work. Forced to adapt in the moment, businesses accelerated their use of digital tools, normalized virtual meetings and embraced flexible scheduling to keep their employees safe, healthy and productive.

When the year began ClearPlan Consulting depended heavily on employee travel because its defense industry clients considered in-person collaboration necessary for accomplishing goals. This approach was expensive, with the cost passed on as higher fees. The stress and exhaustion of travel was taking a toll on the company’s workforce, including consultant Rodney Keller, who often supported far-flung clients in person. “I spent several years as a road warrior, traveling and not seeing much of my family,” he says.

The issue was deeply felt across the company, so when Keller enrolled in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business Aerospace and Defense MBA program at the beginning of 2020, his employer suggested he use his Organizational Action Project (OAP) to identify ways to reduce travel while keeping clients happy.

Then COVID-19 struck, and travel ground to a halt. Besides the substantial disruption to his work, life and study, Keller suddenly found himself without a project to complete. “Then I noticed something interesting,” he says. “Our transition to remote work was almost seamless. Most clients had the digital infrastructure already in place, and everybody just kept working without missing a beat.”

So, Keller turned to a question he knew everyone would soon be asking: was this new reality just as good as the old one?

Gathering Evidence

Keller surveyed ClearPlan Consulting employees and clients to gauge their satisfaction with virtual work:

  • Of the employees working remotely, 95 percent felt they were just as productive, or even more productive, as they had been in the office
  • 95 percent wanted to reduce travel by adding virtual support to their menu of services
  • 90 percent said they could be just as effective if they worked remotely at least three quarters of the time after travel restrictions were lifted
  • Most important, 66 percent of clients said the quality of support had not changed with the switch to virtual work, while 33 percent said it had improved

Ultimately, ClearPlan saved its customers $2.3 million in travel-related costs in 2020, even as the company doubled in size during the same period. While employees worked remotely, engineering and product deliverables experienced no significant delays outside of the pandemic’s universal supply chain issues. Having an adaptable, flexible workforce seemed to smooth over the transition’s rough edges.

Key Insights

These internal findings show that a remote or hybrid work model was likely to attract and keep employees, reduce absenteeism, cut costs and mitigate environmental impact.

Keller’s internal and external research also supported commonly held beliefs about the pandemic’s long-term effects on the way we work:

  • The pandemic opened a box that can never be completely shut. Employees who have experienced the freedom of remote or hybrid work firsthand may be unwilling to go back to the old way of doing things. Additionally, businesses are now keenly aware that a travel-first approach comes at a cost in travel expenses and reduced productivity from fatigue and stress. It’s also impossible to ignore health risks to both travelers and their host firms. Another pandemic is all but inevitable, so being able to shift quickly to a virtual format is essential.
  • The effectiveness of remote work varies highly by task and personality. Not everyone thrives in a communal work environment, so it makes little sense to maintain office space for people who are less productive there than at home. On the other hand, technology limitations may rule out remote work for those who rely on team collaboration or carry out sensitive tasks.
  • Face-to-face interaction still matters. Virtual whiteboards are an amazing tool, but they don’t replace the dynamics of in-person collaboration, and Zoom cocktail hours don’t cure feelings of isolation. Some 70 percent of respondents in a 2020 JLL survey said they still wanted to spend most, though perhaps not all, of their work week in the office once the pandemic ended.[i]

The evidence, Keller says, shows that it’s worth investigating flexible solutions rather than imposing one-size-fits-all mandates. A mix of virtual and in-person work is likely to have a positive effect on your bottom line.

Preparing for the Future

Based on ClearPlan’s success during the pandemic and bolstered by his research, Keller recommended that his company continue to develop partial work-from-home options, even if travel restrictions are lifted. “Even cutting travel by half or a fourth to align with the busiest weeks of the clients’ fiscal calendars would benefit our employees,” he says. “And it directly cuts costs for our clients.” Whenever possible, the company should also look to minimize travel by developing local bench strength in the cities where clients operate.

Keller expects that advertising ClearPlan’s demonstrated success with remote support will move the needle with clients who have traditionally opposed it. “We have a responsibility to pursue a strategy that balances the health and wellness of our team with the needs of our clients,” Keller says. “Offering virtual options is a green, sustainable and cost-effective solution, and we’ve proven that it works.”

CONTACT:

Scott McNutt, business writer/publicist, rmcnutt4@utk.edu

[i] JLL, “JLL finds similarities to previous economic downturns, with a greater emphasis on distributed urbanization and workplaces in the near-term.” https://www.us.jll.com/en/newsroom/despite-increased-remote-working-the-office-is-here-to-stay. June 24, 2020.