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Flexibility has emerged as central ingredient of the post-pandemic workplace

Flexibility has become a key requirement as employers and employees consider the post-pandemic workplace and return-to-work plans emerge.

Mind In View podcast hosts Kate Brett (left) and Thea Gallagher were photographed at Brett’s Phila., Pa. home on Sept. 24, 2021.
Mind In View podcast hosts Kate Brett (left) and Thea Gallagher were photographed at Brett’s Phila., Pa. home on Sept. 24, 2021.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Kate Brett started working as director of development for WXPN in January when pandemic restrictions kept employees at home. She happily went back into the office full time last month.

“In the kind of work I do, it’s beneficial to collaborate in person with colleagues,” said Brett, 40, of Northern Liberties. “Working from home made everything 10 times harder. Instead of being able to pop over to someone’s desk and have a five-minute conversation where you resolve something, it took three days to get a Zoom on the schedule.”

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She found hours of online meetings exhausting and missed the energy from collaborating in person. She also prefers a separation between home and work. Brett, who has obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, craves the structure and routine of going into the office.

“It benefits my mental health more to have to leave my house, get on the subway, be in a different environment and engage with people,” said Brett, who also cohosts the mental-health-focused podcast Mind in View.

As companies prepare their return-to-work plans, employers and employees must include in the equation the unique mental health benefits offered by each work style. Any and all plans are weighed against the health risk. But although the pandemic has proven that some workplaces can successfully function remotely, some workers, nonetheless, still crave the collaboration and socializing that comes from reporting to an office. Other workers never want to return to commuting and enjoy being able to do a load of laundry between meetings.

If there’s one conclusion that can be drawn thus far about the post-pandemic workplace, one size does not fit all and flexibility is key.

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Brett is part of the 63% of respondents of a LinkedIn survey who cited collaboration as the main reason for returning to the workplace. According to the survey, which was conducted between May 22 and June 4, socializing with colleagues and clients was close behind at 62%, while looking forward to doing focused work, enjoying workplace perks, and advancing faster in a career were tied at 47%.

For those who reported a positive experience working remotely throughout the pandemic, 49% said they believed they were safe from COVID-19, 45% felt less stress without the anxiety of a daily commute, and 34% feel happier at home, the survey found.

A preference to remote work is especially strong among millennials and Gen Zers, according to a May report from Citrix Systems, a workplace software company.

About 90% of respondents born after 1981 said they have no interest in returning to office work full time once the pandemic is over. More than half prefer a hybrid model that lets them work from home most of the time, while 18% want a hybrid model that has them work from the office more.

FMC Corp. chose a hybrid model when phasing its 450 to 500 employees back to its Center City corporate office in June. The plan included feedback from employees through live webcasts and conversations with department heads.

“It allows employees up to two days of remote work, whether from home or some other remote location, and three days in the office,” said Ken Gedaka, FMC vice president of communications. “We heard that flexibility was something employees were very much interested in.”

The company also added flexible hours to accommodate employees’ individual needs. For example, a parent can get a child to school and come in later and then stay later at the end of the day. Employees who prefer to work in the office for four or five days are able to do so. Beyond the pandemic, FMC’s plan recognizes a shift in workplace trends.

“You can see where the general work environment is going with companies announcing much more flexibility for employees,” Gedaka said. “We needed to listen to those trends and take action.”

Jeremy Tyler, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said “employers should be mindful that it’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all for employees.”

“There will be some individuals very excited to get back and some folks who are going to be feeling stressed about the prospect of having to go back, potentially, full time,” he said. “Both sides need to work together, communicate and understand each other’s position.”

Megan Whitman has worked for Comcast for five years, currently as a manager in the customer experience department. When the company created its return-to-work policy, employees were surveyed for their preferences. Whitman’s department has opted to remain remote for the foreseeable future.

“Prior to the pandemic I was out all day from 8 am to 9 pm,” said Whitman, 31, of Brewerytown. “I don’t do that anymore. It’s nice to cut the commute time out and have more flexibility in terms of little breaks throughout the day.”

Whitman feels more productive now, though she recognizes the need to create stronger boundaries between work and home life. Her dog Sadie and cat Riggins keep her company and she spends a lot of time with colleagues on Zoom, but she understands the need for in-person socialization.

“It’s so easy to walk into my [home] office and look at stuff when it’s 9 p.m. or a time when I wouldn’t ordinarily work,” she said. “And I have to make a special effort to get out to avoid not seeing human beings or leaving the house other than to walk the dog.”

With so many people having spent a year and a half working from home, the transition back into an office five days a week could be daunting, said Thea Gallagher, clinical psychologist and cohost of Mind In View with Brett. A transitional period would give everyone time to adjust.

“Sometimes we fear change and transition,” Gallagher said. “Both employers and employees should not make decisions out of fear, because then you’re not hearing each other, collaborating, and working together to figure out what is best for everyone.”

With just seven employees, Center City law firm Nochumson P.C. is now back in the office full time, but employees have flexibility to work from home once a week.

“When people were exclusively working remotely, we were doing really well,” said managing partner Alan Nochumson. “But part of law is working together and physically being here. Especially from a training perspective, because we do have a younger workforce, that’s important.”

Now that Brett is back in the office, she’s reflected on how things are different from when she worked from home.

“As with any big change, there are moments of missing things, including being able to walk my dog at lunch and saving money on to-go coffees,” she said. “But in terms of my mental health, I’ve already noticed an improvement, just by going to a space where I can interact with others collaboratively, get real-time feedback that isn’t in a vacuum, and have authentic energy exchanges. Most important to me, my home is my sacred space again, untainted by the daily stressors of work.”

The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.