Before the pandemic, Meghan Smith commuted to work in downtown Baltimore, met with colleagues at her marketing agency, traveled to events and sometimes ate out at the Inner Harbor.
But for Smith and countless other workers, activities such as those stopped suddenly in March 2020. For more than a year, the 29-year-old marketing executive has alternated between her living and dining rooms for an office, conferred with colleagues via online videoconferencing, planned virtual events, and worked a modified four-day week. On Mondays, her day off, she volunteers.
Now, as more people get inoculated for COVID-19 and businesses and schools start bringing people back, a return to normal seems almost within reach. Even so, the workplace for millions may never be the same.
Experts agree that for white-collar workers at least, the workplace won’t resemble the one they hastily vacated in 2020. Many thought the closings might last a couple of weeks; instead, it dragged on.
COVID-19 sparked a “global experiment in large-scale and long-term remote work,” according to researchers at Cornell University’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies, who say it proved more productive and efficient than many employers expected.
As a result, experts expect remote working to continue and expand with technological advances and more allowances for worker flexibility. That will allow office space to be used for teams rather than individuals.
“More employees will be working outside of the office,” said Bradford S. Bell, a Cornell professor of strategic human resources.
Among them will be Smith, who has no desire to return to the “before” world of work. Her employer, Awin, a global marketing technology firm that helps retailers boost online sales, plans to encourage that option after the pandemic.
“I have loved working remotely,” said Smith, a Locust Point resident. “It gives you a lot more flexibility in your day and time. … I’m talking with team members more than I was in the office.”
Many employers are rethinking work models for the longer term, Bell said. Some companies are reconfiguring office space and preparing employees for the transition as they begin to return some workers to offices.
What happens has implications across the economy from commercial real estate in office centers like downtown Baltimore to apparel sales and business travel.
A survey by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore found that 65% of downtown office workers wanted to return to their offices, at least some days of the week, by September, said Shelonda Stokes, the advocacy group’s president.
“The future is hybrid,” she said. “We know that the new normal will be different, and that people will not use office space the same.”
Concerns about downtown office vacancies predate the pandemic, though the public health crisis did accelerate and exacerbate the worrying trend of companies moving away from the business district, Stokes said.
Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said he expects most companies to bring their employees back to offices, though in a staggered fashion. He said some commercial spaces may be converted to new uses or physically modified to accommodate what the new, post-pandemic workforce looks like, causing some “disruption” for the area.
”The future of the central business district is still strong,” Fry said. “We just need to give it more attention to make sure it can be more competitive with other business hubs.”
Some are eager to return to the office. Lockdowns and homebound work have left them feeling burned out and isolated, itching to return to a more defined, professional setting. Some have “Zoom fatigue,” or find that virtual meetings and calls extend their days, taking up the time they once spent commuting and more.
Christine Chandler is looking forward to joining a voluntary, phased reopening of M&T Bank’s mid-Atlantic headquarters in downtown Baltimore. The return of a first wave of workers to One Light Street was initially planned for April 5 but pushed back to April 19 because of a recent uptick in some COVID-19 statistics. Chandler, a senior vice president of M&T Realty Capital Corp., believes more people will want to return in coming months.
“I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand to get back into a routine,” said Chandler, who plans to return three days a week. “I really miss the interaction with my colleagues.”
And she’s ready for more defined separation between work and home.
“For me, right now, my days are extended to 24/7,” she said. “You walk by your computer and there it is.”
About 20% to 30% of M&T’s downtown workers expressed interest in returning, said Chandler, who has helped coordinate the phased return. Employees will be able to choose to work in the office all five days or fewer. They can change their minds and return to remote work, which proved successful despite the abrupt nature of the March 2020 transition.
For those who do return, strict COVID protocols will be enforced, including requiring masks in common areas or shared space, and the use of an app to answer questions about virus symptoms before entering the building. The numbers of employees coming in on each floor will be monitored. Workers will find ample supplies of hand sanitizer, directional signs, limited elevator capacity and temperature scanners. The bank plans to evaluate a broader reopening in July.
“It’s a test-and-learn environment,” Chandler said.
Before the pandemic, most workers who said their job could be done mainly from home rarely or never teleworked, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Now, 71% of those employees work from home all or most of the time. More than half said they want to continue to work from home after the pandemic. In the future, about a quarter to just under a third of the workforce is expected to work from home several times a week, according to Global Workforce Analytics.
Those teleworkers represent just a slice of the overall U.S. workforce, however. The Pew survey found that most workers simply cannot work from home. It also found a divide between those who can and cannot telework, with 62% of workers with a bachelor’s degree or more education saying their work can be done from home, while only 23% of those without a four-year college degree can work from home.
Of the 55 companies that work with Cornell’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies, including large, multinational businesses, about two-thirds plan to expand remote work offerings to workers, said Bell, the center’s director.
“The pandemic has opened Pandora’s box,” Bell said. “Employees have been able to work from home,” he said, “and that’s helped dispel myths that people working from home were not working and just running errands. People managed to stay mostly if not more productive.”
CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, which has 750 workers in Canton and offices in Columbia, Owings Mills and Annapolis, is staying almost completely remote, for now. About 95% of the workforce has teleworked for more than a year. CareFirst has not set a date for a return, saying it is monitoring COVID-19 trends before making such a decision.
“Until it is safe, CareFirst will focus efforts on creating a new and better normal for our workforce,” including improved technology for both office and remote work, the health insurer said in a statement.
Some smaller businesses have been able to work closely with employees to decide how to work going forward.
When the lease for her marketing and public relations firm was up for renewal in August, Sandy Hillman polled her employees to see who wanted to return eventually. The president of Sandy Hillman Communications had closed the office March 11, 2020, temporarily, she believed.
By late summer, all 12 full-time and two part-time employees, who already worked remotely out of state, wanted to keep working from home. Hillman had expected younger workers to clamor to return in person, but that was not the case, she said.
Most employees now catch up several times a day with videoconferencing. “That’s a lot of calls, but everyone feels they are very connected as a result of that,” she said.
But Hillman was not ready to give up on the office altogether. Instead, she leased a newly renovated but smaller space in Cross Keys. A couple of times a week, she works there, where two “swing” desks are open for employees. Hillman wanted a place to store work materials and files, host out-of-town clients and have employees gather for meetings.
Plus, “I wanted a backup,” in case people changed their minds, she said. If more people decide to return, which she doubts, she said she could lease more space.
Awin, the downtown marketing agency where Smith works, has used the health crisis to take stock of its work culture. The company had limited experience with remote working before the pandemic, when it shut down all its offices, including the Baltimore headquarters, home to about 50 client account managers.
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Awin has no plans to close offices but is not rushing to reopen them, said Adam Ross, the firm’s CEO. Once it does, it plans to reconfigure space to serve more collaborative work, believing creative tasks and workshops need to be in person. But flexibility in where and when individuals work is here to stay, he said.
In June, the company switched to a 4 1/2-day workweek, allowing workers to de-stress by logging off early each Friday. It went so well that Awin is now experimenting with a permanent four-day, 32-hour week with no reductions in salaries or client work. Employees work with supervisors to choose one day or two half days off per week.
For Smith, that means a three-day weekend with Mondays off to schedule doctors’ appointments, run errands or volunteer helping organ transplant patients and donors.
“The workload is the same, and I get it done in those four days,” Smith said. “It’s just allowed us to be more cognizant of how we organize ourselves and our time management. It’s made me be better at prioritizing my time and focusing when I needed to.”
Ross said the changes stem from a philosophy that employees with work/life balance are more loyal, productive and successful. A business should work toward measurable goals, regardless of when and where that work gets done, he said.
“After a successful period of remote working,” Ross said, “we … tried to pick out the best elements of what had happened and create a vision for the future of work.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Hallie Miller contributed to this article.