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Employers embrace more flexible workplaces as in-person restrictions lift

BY Sunday, May 23, 2021 06:15pm

The lifting of Michigan’s in-person work restrictions is a light at the end of the tunnel for remote workers eager to get back to the office, while others are hoping flexible work settings will stick long term.

Starting May 24, remote workers are allowed to return to offices under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plan that tied various COVID-19 restrictions to statewide vaccination rates. Michigan hit the first vaccination threshold of 55 percent of the population on May 10, allowing businesses across all sectors to call workers back to offices. 

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Hitting the threshold eliminates the requirement that employers create a “policy prohibiting in-person work for employees to the extent that their work activities can feasibly be completed remotely,” state officials said last week in an announcement that permanent COVID-19 safety rules are also off the table.

However, not everyone is eager to return to in-person work, and employers have so far taken varied approaches to bringing workers back. 

According to a March 2021 survey of 2,000 full-time workers nationwide, 87 percent of respondents who have been working remotely during the pandemic would prefer to continue working remotely at least one day a week. Among all workers, 68 percent responded that a hybrid workplace would be ideal going forward, according to the survey by market research firm Morning Consult.

‘We’re not forcing people back’

In West Michigan, business leaders appear to be open to a more flexible or hybrid approach, at least for the foreseeable future.

Grand Rapids-based health care nonprofit Hope Network surveyed its office employees and found the majority want to return to the office at least on a part-time basis, said President and CEO Phil Weaver. 

About 150 people worked at Hope Network’s main office in Grand Rapids before the pandemic. While roughly 40 to 45 people came in throughout the pandemic, about two-thirds of the employees are still working remotely, Weaver said.

“We’re not forcing people back yet, but we’re encouraging a couple meetings in certain cases that might require group or collaborative sessions,” Weaver said.

Weaver and other employers interviewed for this story said they were also waiting on additional guidance from the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) about return to work plans. As part of a broader budget negotiation deal with lawmakers, Whitmer withdrew plans for MIOSHA to issue permanent COVID-19 workplace safety rules.

Spectrum Health has shifted to a “virtual first” philosophy, said Pam Ries, chief human resources officer for the Grand Rapids-based health system. About 8,000 of Spectrum’s 31,000 employees are working virtually, and a return to the office is not anticipated until January 2022, Ries told MiBiz in an email. 

“There may be some roles that have a business need to return sooner, which we will carefully evaluate,” Ries said. “We’ll continue discussions and leaders will make decisions based on roles and what works best for each team.”

Spectrum will provide employees with an advance notice before moving into the next phase of in-person work. Remote work for finance, billing, human resources and I.T. can effectively be done remotely long term, while other teams that benefit from face-to-face interaction will meet in person at times, Ries said.

Meanwhile, Spectrum’s planned eight-story office building north of downtown Grand Rapids for 1,200 employees will feature “hoteling space” to accommodate workers who split their time between remote and in-person work, Spectrum officials have said.

“We know the future of work is all about more flexibility, and we’ve learned that productivity remains strong,” Ries said.

Return ‘in waves,’ talent development

Even with restrictions lifted, companies bringing workers back will likely “come in waves,” said The Right Place Inc. President and CEO Randy Thelen. 

Office restrictions until now have given most companies some leeway in allowing people to work in offices during the pandemic, and some people have already started migrating back, Thelen said.

“In the past couple of weeks there have been more people downtown during lunchtime,” he said. “You’re starting to see it more and more as vaccination rates pick up.”

Some companies and organizations are still developing their back-to-work strategy. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan’s Grand Rapids office as of late last week had not yet made a decision for bringing back workers, according to a company spokesperson. 

Thelen sees value in returning to offices for roles that require collaboration among employees, as well as younger employees that learn through “subtle training” that comes from being around others in a workplace.

“Young staff members are still growing in their careers and haven’t had development opportunities in the past year in certain ways that can only happen in an office environment,” Thelen said.

Weaver of Hope Network is still cautious about potential effects after a year of remote working and how that could affect an employee’s development.

“There are issues out there that nobody is really talking about,” Weaver said. “If you have a person working in the office every day and a person working remotely that you don’t see every day, who is going to get the promotion? Those things will have to be looked at on the human resources side of things. The fact of the matter is, if you want to move up in a company, it’s going to be hard to do that remotely.”

Hitting the 55 percent vaccination threshold accelerated many companies’ return-to-work plans that had been under development since last year. The Right Place’s staff will be invited back to work in the office by the end of the month, but Thelen recognizes some employees’ switch from remote to in-person may not happen quickly.

“We committed to give everyone on our team a 30-day notice before we make any requirements to work in the office,” Thelen said. “It takes time. We were able to switch from the office to the home in an instant because that was the mandate, but there is going to need to be a bit of a grace period for some people. We’ll work with them and be flexible.”

Weaver expressed similar reasoning in giving workers flexibility in ramping up in-person work, citing complicating factors including childcare or taking care of a sick family member.

“What we will be doing is requiring them to attend some meetings in the office, but they would be one day a week or every other week, that’s still being determined,” Weaver said.

Thelen said one aspect of the pandemic’s seismic effect on office work is clear: Employers will be more flexible than ever before on in-office expectations for employees.

“There will be greater flexibility in the way we go about our work,” Thelen said. “Flexible work schedules will be allowed in a way we haven’t had historically.”

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