There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic made rapid, wide-ranging changes to where and how we work. But are these changes permanent or will things revert to the way they were – once a vaccine is available and widely dispensed?I’d like to explore how Work from Home (WFH) influenced our work processes and productivity this past year and explore the “test case” of Israel – the one country in which most of the adult population already is vaccinated. Israel provides a window into some of the thorny issues that will influence if, when and how we are likely to return to working at the office.
WFH? Looks Like It’s a Win
Most people working at home throughout COVID-19 indicate that it’s been a positive shift: Despite the change in work environment, it’s been easy to meet deadlines, complete projects, get work done, and feel motivated about work, according to the Pew Research Center (PRC) – a non-partisan American think tank that published research about how COVID-19 impacted work. At least three-quarters of those interviewed by the PRC in the US stated it was easy to obtain the technology and equipment they needed and to organize an adequate workspace at home. The majority also felt WFH gave them more flexibility with their work hours. 38% stated WFH made it easier to balance work and family.
Other studies published this year have drawn similar conclusions. For example, PwC’s US Remote Work Survey confirmed that business leaders see real productivity gains that resulted from the move to WFH. Likewise, a study by Great Place to Work of more than 800,000 employees at Fortune 500 companies concluded there was stable (or increased) productivity levels with employees doing their work from home.
Best Practices with WFH
Many people never expected WFH to be such a success – but for Tzedal Neeley, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and an expert on virtual work and organizational change, it was not surprising. Neeley – an ardent advocate of WFH and author of the book Remote Work Revolution – believes that optimal productivity at home is linked to creating new routines to replace old routines at the office.
To get the most out of WFH, Neeley says, develop a comfortable set of practices that are followed regularly – for example, setting fixed times for waking up, starting work, and finishing for the day. Stay engaged with coworkers by leveraging email, Slack, and other solutions – even for a virtual “group lunch” or weekly “happy hour” that can help combat any feelings of isolation.
Neeley has advice not just for employees, but also for employers. She quotes a famous statement by Ernest Hemingway: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” In other words, instead of trying to monitor your employees – which simply is not possible in the WFH reality – Neeley tells managers that they can trust that their team members are working based on the fact that they deliver.
Do We Want to Turn Back the Clock?
Whether we return to working in the office as in pre-COVID-19 days is likely to be a reflection of three primary factors, according to the New York Times:
- Vaccines – How long will it take for most employees to be vaccinated? In the US, President Biden stated there will be a vaccine for every adult by the end of May. But each country or region has its own timeline for the vaccination roll-out.
- Schools – When will local schools re-open for in-person learning? Until the schools are open, it is tough for parents of young children to be working outside the home.
- Personal Preferences – According to a Gartner survey, 90% of employers anticipate allowing employees to continue working at least part of the time from home. While there are obvious advantages to working in an office – and particularly for entry-level workers, who have not been socialized into office culture – many employees may discover that they prefer to continue working remotely.
in favor of the office
As pointed out by PwC’s US Remote Work Survey, the likelihood is that we’ll see the development of a hybrid workplace reality – working some days at home, and other days at the office. Because, as it turns out, most business leaders are not interested in entirely giving up the idea of having an office.
Part of the allure of an office, from a management perspective, relates to its significance for an organization’s less experienced workers. PwC’s survey, for example, found that those with 0–5 years of professional experience had a greater desire to work in the office than their more experienced peers. Individuals without a lot of experience also expressed more concerns about productivity from home, and they placed greater value on meetings with managers and training programs.
Another factor in favor of the office relates not to the employees but to the offices themselves. According to the New York Times, at present, many tenants have more space than they need. In Manhattan, the amount of sublet office space available to rent went up to nearly 50 percent in 2020, and it is currently 27 percent of all available space. The pandemic had a huge and immediate impact on property owners, brokers, developers, and property technology companies(proptechs). Bringing employees back to the office is viewed by many as a first step in reviving the “ghost towns'' of business districts and city centers around the world.
Israel – a “Test Case”
At the time of this writing, Israel is the only country in which vaccines have been received by all adults who are interested in being vaccinated.
And while this opens possibilities in terms of returning to the office, it has also created questions regarding the rights of those who choose not to be vaccinated. Workplaces and schools are struggling with questions that pit concern for public health against questions relating to individual rights.
Should organizations require workers to be vaccinated in order to return to the office? Or should individuals be allowed to make their own decisions, whatever the consequences?
Many places are seeking to find the right balance – encouraging vaccination but without making it compulsory. For example, at present Israel’s healthcare system requires all employees, including doctors, nurses, administrators, and support staff, to be vaccinated. Anyone not vaccinated is being transferred to jobs that avoid contact with high-risk patients.
Similarly, Tel Aviv University is currently resuming in-person classes. However, only students who are vaccinated can be physically present on campus. Those who are not vaccinated are entitled to continue learning remotely.
What Does the Law Say?
In Israel, the country’s basic laws define that each person has the right to make independent decisions and choose what to do with his or her body in line with individual choices and beliefs.
At the same time, there also is a legal precedent in Israel that may provide support for employers seeking to mandate COVID-19 vaccination in the workplace. During a measles outbreak that took place in Israel about seven years ago, an Israeli Supreme Court ruling indicated that one could impose sanctions on anti-vaxxers to curb the outbreak. The question that was discussed at the time related to whether the government could reduce child benefit payments for parents who had not vaccinated their children. This unusual ruling could be viewed as supporting employers today who are interested in mandating COVID-19 vaccination.
Some of the Questions Employers Are Asking
In a first example of the type of tricky legal situations that are likely to come up, a labor court in Tel Aviv supported the decision of a daycare center to bar a teaching assistant who did not want to get vaccinated or undergo testing.
Most employers are looking for ways to avoid legal battles while still providing protection for employees in the office. Some of the questions that employers are currently are asking include:
- Can I ask whether an employee has been vaccinated (or intends to be vaccinated)? Generally, requiring medical information from an employee may be considered an invasion of privacy and confidentiality.
- Can I set up different arrangements at work for vaccinated or recovered workers vs. non-vaccinated workers – for example, for transportation, dining services, or in-person meetings?
- Can I require employees coming to the office to have a vaccination certification or up-to-date corona test?
According to labor law experts Adv. Nahum Feinberg and Adv. Orly Aviram in this interview in the Jerusalem Post, under Israeli law, employers are entitled to ask questions if (1) the purpose of asking is to prevent the risk of infecting others and (2) if the information has an impact on work decisions, such as: Should the employee work in the office? How should work capsules be divided up? Should meetings and training sessions be organized in person? Employers are entitled by law to make alternative arrangements for unvaccinated employees for transportation, the use of the office, and more, as long as the arrangements comply with the rules of proportionality. Employers are also entitled to require a vaccination certificate or up-to-date corona test.
The Workplace Redefined
The introduction of the vaccine in Israel facilitates a new type of conversation surrounding COVID-19 and the workplace.
Is it better – over the long run – to work at home, or in the office? What are the advantages of each possibility? What are the costs in terms of financial expense and productivity? What is the social and human impact? And how do we negotiate the need to provide a safe environment with the fact that some employees choose not to be vaccinated?
As countries around the world ramp up their vaccination campaigns, these fundamental questions will emerge in different contexts, and finding the “golden mean” – a way of balancing all these different needs – will require tremendous sensitivity to the legal, financial, and human considerations at hand.
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