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Jaqueline Roberts, 36, is the founder and CEO of a Brooklyn-based start-up. Like the rest of the nation’s workforce, her office operations transitioned to remote when the novel coronavirus struck the coast the second week of March, 2021. Roberts then moved a desk into her guest bedroom, converted it to a home-office, and has been virtually directing her team of 150 employees ever since.
“WFH has provided such an exceptional and unique lens from which to view the workplace as a whole,” says Roberts. “Employee productivity actually has been fantastic with people working from home. There was so much time lost in the commute which has been gained and also generally people have been extremely mindful about their work schedules.”
“We have employed a lot of collaboration platforms to consistently engage with employees throughout WFH,” says Roberts. “One thing, though, that is definitely missing” she adds, “is the serendipity of a quick coffee chat or a bathroom break—those moments are crucial for relationship building and for eureka moments to happen. Innovation just can’t be scheduled on a calendar.”
Roberts also worries about new hires, and the ability to give them the tangible feel of the company’s culture in a remote setting.
“There is so much flow and exchange of information that takes place when you are all sitting near each other. Those micro moments, organic conversations are definitely missing. You also get to know your colleagues better whether it’s from what they eat for lunch, to what they are doing that evening after work—all those small details end up forming a bigger picture of people you work with and help foster stronger bonds.”
Concerned about timely recognition and appreciation of her team’s work—an aspect of great importance to her and the company—Roberts says, “It’s hard to see the hardest working person in the room when there’s no physical room, so to speak.” Now that most of her staff is vaccinated, she is hoping to get the team to regroup in a physical space at least three days a week, a task not as easy as she hopes, even with back to work bonuses.
“People are reluctant to go back to work in the office, they’ve gotten used to the work-from-home model. Especially millennials—millennials want to work from home.” Roberts wants to be reasonable and accommodating in her approach, afraid that the change in remote work policy might cause hardworking employees “to quit in search of jobs you can work remotely.”
Sara Morano, 28, has been working remotely for the past fifteen months. She isn’t looking forward to going back to work after Covid. “I barely felt like a person,” says Morano, whose full-time job left little room for her personal life to flourish.
“If I wasn’t at the office, I was commuting back and forth from the office, leaving only a day and a half every week for chores, errands, and my social life. Now I have time to make lunch with my husband instead of running to the deli. I can do my laundry during my breaks, wear pajamas when I feel like it, and even fit in a call with my mom before work. For the first time in my life, I actually feel rested.”
While the return to work bonus sweetens the pot for Morano, she isn’t sure if her mental health is worth the new work arrangement. “Just the thought of meeting rooms makes me anxious.”
Morano is not alone on this front. Based on a poll conducted for Bloomberg News in May, a whopping 39% of Americans (a significant majority of the figure was millennials) confirmed they would consider looking for different work from home jobs if their employer asked them to return to the office.
Similar to millennials, many baby boomers at work are reaping the benefits of working from home. Paul Crawford, 64, was approaching retirement when the pandemic pivoted him toward remote work.
Crawford, who had little saved up for retirement, is thankful for this shift. “I like having a separation between my work and home life, but working without having to go into the office has made keeping up with work requirements a lot easier for me, though it took a bit of getting used to,” says Crawford, who had some trouble getting used to Zoom, but has since upgraded his Wi-Fi.
For employees of Crawford’s age, the transition to remote has allowed them to delay retirement, allowing them a smoother transition from full time work.
The switch to remote has also created more opportunities for retired boomers going back to work. According to Forbes, one of the biggest trends seen in 2021 is rising gig work opportunities, which provides both small businesses and freelancers more flexibility than full time jobs and makes for the baby boomers’ preferred work environment.
Though both the baby boomer generation and work from home millennials are embracing the new normal and all the flexibility it brings, research finds that the model doesn’t comply as well with the Gen Z working style, and younger generations who are eager to get back to work.
According to a recent Microsoft survey, Gen Z workers—born between 1996 and 2015—are struggling more with isolation than their peers. Jonah Boyer, 22, is a recent graduate and new hire at Roberts’ company. Unlike most of his older co-workers, he still shares an apartment with his roommate.
“I’ve been having to snake my laptop cord over to my bed and hope that my headphones block out the sound of my roommates watching TV,” says Boyer. “I miss being able to see my co-workers face-to-face, and I worry that without those in-person meetings, I won’t be able to get as much facetime with my boss.” The Elusive Search for a Middle Ground and Future of Remote Working
Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that corporate vacancy rates have climbed to their highest in recent history. Contrary to many theories, the diminished need for an office space has less to do with millennials’ work ethic than a general and foundational shift in the contemporary American lifestyle.
The solutions aren’t crystal clear, especially with uncertainty tied to the pandemic and potential variants, but increased transparency and communication between remote workers and employers can go a long way to ease the ambiguity regarding the future of the physical workspace.
“Many start-ups have opted out from having a designated physical location and instead are using those savings into building more team engagement through offsites, appreciation gifts, and learning enablement services to help their employees fulfill both their professional and personal goals,” says Jaqueline Roberts. “We are doing the same, and thinking about doing exciting offsites once things are more open.”
In addition to these offsites, Roberts is currently developing a hybrid and flexible plan for people like Jonah Boyer who do want to come back to the office setting. “It’s important to remember that your company is only as successful as the people in it,” says Roberts.
While Roberts, Morano, Boyer, and Crawford might not be on the same page about returning to the office and the benefits of working on-site, their workplace propositions are equally compelling and, of course, challenging.
Over the next weeks, our Back to Work series will take a deeper dive into each team member’s unique perspective, further discussing how to reimagine and restructure the workplace—both virtually and in person—to best enhance creativity, innovation, and mental health for every generation at work.
Back to Work is a weekly series that explores the challenging, exciting, and unprecedented time of transitioning back to work through the lens of those involved.
As part of our mission to recognize workplace heroes, SmartGift aims to spotlight how fostering connection, transparency in communication, and workplace appreciation can affect company culture and the bottom line. Over the forthcoming weeks, Back to Work will highlight how managers, employers, and employees continue to be affected by this transition in American work culture.