It’s Going to be Harder Than You Think to Go Back to the Workplace

Audio Version

I lived in Western Europe for a year after college when I was a Watson Fellow. Adapting to new cultures and mores was difficult, but I was surprised at how much more difficult it was returning to my own country afterwards.

As we near the milestone in the US of 50% with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, it is time to think about how to begin the transition back to the workplace. I think companies are going to find out that it is much more difficult than just “getting back to normal.” I can offer some things from quality and management to help out.


As I wrote about in Managing When Working From Home once the lockdown had settled in, the Work From Home genie is out of the bottle. According to Global Workplace Analytics 56% of US jobs could be at least partially compatible with working from home. They estimate that 25-30% of the workforce will be working from home multiple days per week by the end of 2021. A survey done by Prudential says that a whopping 42% of workers who are using remote work options will look for another job if those options don’t continue after the pandemic.

This is a huge change from where we were before the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, working from home was possible with technology, but very few companies embraced the concept, for a variety of reasons. But when faced with making it work or going out of businesses, most companies rose to the occasion and found a way to make it happen.

It is inevitable that we will see working from home as a feature going forward.

Now that the possibility exists and coupled with an ever-increasing portion of the workforce that demands flexibility in how the work gets done, it is inevitable that we will see working from home as a feature going forward. Which also means that companies are going to have to figure out how this will work when things go back to a new normal.

I have some advice on how to proceed with that.

First, by nature this is a discussion between direct supervisors and their reports. This means you will need to invest the power for making the decision on how a particular person works from home in the supervisor and the individual. Especially for larger companies, I suspect if only HR is allowed to make that decision, they will be swamped, or they will make blanket pronouncements for eligibility (or the lack thereof) that will not meet the needs of customers and employees.

How is a supervisor supposed to make that determination? There is a tool I have used for years that can be used to help called a SIPOC diagram.

A SIPOC diagram is a very simple, but useful tool for understanding how a process works. Every process, whether it is an entire corporation or one person’s job, receives inputs of some sort. These inputs could be anything: requirements from the customer, raw materials, a component from a previous step in the company. These inputs are provided by some sort of a supplier, internal or external to the company. The process then takes these inputs and transforms them into some sort of an output: a part, an analysis, a final product. These outputs are then consumed by a customer of that process, and again, the customer can be internal or external to the business.

The SIPOC documents what a process needs for its inputs, the requirements for these inputs, and who supplies them. It also shows what it creates for its outputs, and who consumes them, and what those customers need from the process. Ideally those who supply inputs have feedback from the process to tell them how well they are doing meeting the process’ needs, and those consuming the outputs have a way to feedback how well the process is meeting their needs.

These diagrams don’t take long to create. You could create one with the participation of people in the process and their internal suppliers and customers pretty quickly, and you could identify items to follow up with when they affect external suppliers and customers.

How would this help in determining how a job could be done remotely?

There are other aspects that are made more difficult, if not impossible, by remote work.

There is no doubt that a large part of many jobs can be done without a physical presence, perhaps more than we would have suspected at the start of 2020. But as many of us have learned during this past year, there are other aspects that are made more difficult, if not impossible, by remote work. Notice how the SIPOC diagram can capture some of these as inputs and outputs.

For example, as an industrial engineer documents the outputs of the job they do, one of these might be manufacturing line improvements. The inputs necessary for line improvements likely come from a number of people, but most notably from talking to and observing the people running the process themselves. While I can think of ways that could work for doing that remotely, our technology is not quite up to providing the efficiency (and trust) that interpersonal interaction and physical observation have. So in this case, the supervisor and the industrial engineer might agree that a portion of the work week be devoted to performing those activities in person.

Of course, there is a non-measurable component to having people at the same place that SIPOC is not going to help with. There is some value in happenstance meetings when we are all at work together, and in the camaraderie and trust formed this way.

For the fuzzier benefits like this, you are going to have to balance the potential benefits for the company with what your employees want. There is likely no formula to get you to the optimum, so you will have to humbly admit that there is no right single answer and negotiate with your employees as they also seek to balance life and work in and out of the workplace.

For my money, the best approach to such a negotiation is something like the approach advocated in Fisher and Ury’s Getting to Yes. If you haven’t read this classic, you really should. It helps to move negotiations from a “win-lose” proposition to more of a “win-win” proposition.

I would suggest you even help your employees navigate the process of negotiation if they are unfamiliar with it. It would mean a better outcome for everyone while preserving good working relationships. As Fisher and Ury emphasize, people react with emotion during negotiations, so preparation of all parties ahead of time on what they can be flexible on, and what they cannot, is essential.

Businesses...will risk having an ever-smaller pool of employees who are willing to work there.

If you are thinking it is going to go back to like it was, here’s the deal: Prior to this point, businesses in the US had all the power to determine if a job was allowed to be performed at a distance or not. Now, they really don’t. Workers have seen that it is in fact possible, therefore businesses need to be willing to risk somewhat less efficiency and effectiveness in order to keep their employees who want to work from home. If businesses are unwilling to do that, or they just want the level of control and oversight back by having everyone come in, they will risk having an ever-smaller pool of employees who are willing to work there.

I saw a dramatic foreshadow of this at one of my aerospace clients. A number of years ago they ran into a generational conflict between the employees who had been there for a while and saw devotion to the job as equal to being there from 8 (or earlier) in the morning to 5 (or later) in the evening, and those younger employees who were willing to give the same amount of time, but on a more flexible schedule. Each group could not understand the motivation of the other one and so made serious errors when working with each other.

The company quickly found that they couldn’t hire or keep employees if they made it a requirement to be there from 8 to 5 and had the foresight to see that this was unsustainable. The key learning here is that the company adapted because the alternative was not having any new workers in the pipeline.

Working at a distance is inevitable going forward, but unfortunately it is not possible for every job.

And now for the really bad news. I believe this idea of working at a distance is inevitable going forward, but unfortunately it is not possible for every job. For example, a machine operator is probably not going to have much of their job that they can do from home.

Regrettably, there is already a class system in these situations with those “on the floor” feeling (often correctly) that they are being treated as second-class citizens. Seeing some workers able to work from home when that is not even an option for them will further exacerbate these differences.

I don’t know the full answer to that one. I feel that at least a part of it is when managers (and supporting white-collar workers) realize that they do not directly create customer value. Those front-line workers making the parts or delivering the service are the ones that do. Management is valuable only to the degree with which they support those who are the real value creators, the front line. If customers could get their product or service without any managers working at the company, they wouldn’t care. This is an opportunity for managers to step up and add real value to their workers – their job is to constantly be looking for ways that they can help out the workers both in the short- and long-term.

Navigating the return to normal is going to be quite difficult, and the manner in which you and your company do that will have repercussions for years. Plan now, if you haven’t already, for how you are going to handle this change, because whatever we end up with, the one thing it will not be is like it was before.