Our webinar was moderated by Bryan Walsh, top center, a correspondent for Axios (Photo by From Day One)

For American workers fortunate to be working from home during the pandemic, another big adjustment is on the way: Going back into the workplace. It won’t be quite the same as before the pandemic, certainly not right away. And maybe not ever, if some of the lessons learned have staying power.

There is no script for this situation. In fact, when it comes to getting workplaces up and running while still protecting their workforces from the coronavirus, American companies for the most part “are making it up as they go,” the Wall Street Journal observed this week.

To get a sneak preview of what may unfold, From Day One gathered a panel of experts last week as part of a series of webinars, this one titled, “A Year From Now, How Will the Workplace Have Changed?” Among the questions put to them: How will companies look different, feel different, and function differently? They had a lot to say about leveraging technology, building psychological safety, and the importance of strong leadership. Here are the highlights (and you can watch the video by registering here):

The Rise of Leadership

As companies rise and fall during the economic slump triggered by the pandemic, leaders will have an unprecedented opportunity to make good on their commitments to employees and other stakeholders–or to fail conspicuously in that regard.

“Leadership and culture is naked, exposed, during this crisis,” said Larry McAlister, VP of global talent at the data-management company NetApp. “When you asked somebody before on a call or in the room, ‘Hey, how are you doing?,’ you didn’t really know or care. When you ask someone how they are doing now, you really care how that person is doing.”

The ability for a leader, high ranking or not, to “walk the walk” during a global crisis, will not be forgotten easily. Just as people ask one another where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated or 9/11 took place, “Now it’s, What did you do, what did your company do during Covid-19?,” noted Genoa Martell, global head of talent at Wish, the e-commerce platform. Leaders will be judged on how they upheld their company values, she said.

At the same time, others will step up. “There are some unexpected leaders emerging,” added Martell. “The people that can truly embody the values of a company are the ones that are actually able to communicate and reach out and be gracious and solid in everything they’re doing.”

Resilience and Reconfiguration

Just how quickly will we bounce back? We can’t know for sure, but our speakers identified several key factors that can help workers ease back into things. Companies can look to partner with other industries, even with competitors, and choose to see the virus as a unifying enemy to tackle together.

Just as corporate security measures were ramped up considerably after 9/11, the same idea can apply to how we will need to reconfigure our workplaces after a global pandemic. “We always go to extremes after a crisis,” noted McAlister. “It’s going to be interesting to see how walking into a building changes.”

“Is this the end of the open-plan office?,” asked moderator Bryan Walsh, an author and correspondent for Axios.

Indeed, office infrastructure may need to be redesigned to provide enough physical separation between employees, but there are precedents for such changes. In the past, buildings have been repurposed to account for technological and even cultural changes. “It’s called shearing layers,” noted Shaun Slattery, director of change management at LumApps, an employee-communication platform. “Your foundation doesn’t move very fast but the art on the walls can be swapped out just like that.”

Classic in-person brainstorming sessions with whiteboards or notepads may feel irreplaceable, said Shradha Prakash, VP of future of work and organization design at Prudential Financial. However, if technology were to become available to replicate those analog methods, Prakash said, it would be highly useful to her and her teams. This will take skill-set changes, as we will need our employees to be more adaptable to using these new technologies.

Working Out Loud is an example of a company focused on creating online peer groups to share and collaborate on projects. Using such platforms, leaders can encourage their employees to be comfortable sharing works in progress and getting feedback from others online.

In the post-pandemic era, it’s likely workers will need more physical space. (Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash)

Getting Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

Are you ill at ease with the state of things? Well, you’re far from alone. But chances are that things won’t be getting comfy anytime soon. However, our speakers suggested that this might not necessarily be a bad thing.

“Be comfortable with decision making that does not have a playbook or precedence,” said Prakash, advising leaders to throw out some of the old playbooks and be open to exploring new territory with their employees.

Prakash warned leaders of becoming risk-averse, less communicative, and thinking primarily in the short term. She suggested a kind of inner dialogue: “I need to let go, I need to ask for help, get more creative and out of my comfort zone. That is a muscle we all need to build,” she said.

We’ve been through technological shifts before, including the rise of social media and messaging platforms, which became part of corporate life. “I’m interested in how these kinds of widespread social experiences of web-meeting technologies and things like that are going to work themselves back into the workplace and change perhaps meeting formats, or our comfort levels of, you know, a cat showing up in the middle of a meeting,” said Slattery, whose own pet made a cameo appearance in our webinar. “These things play out in weird and sometimes very special ways.”

Is Your Company ‘Future-ready?’

While some companies incorporated remote work before the pandemic, there are also many business leaders who find themselves scrambling to adapt their teams accordingly. “Many, I think, feel thrown into the deep end of the pool,” said Slattery. “[Some] organizations had some of the right infrastructure in place as well as cultural muscles to perform well in a distributed and primarily online mode. Others did not have those pieces in place.”

Our speakers affirmed that reinvention of communication and digital practices is necessary to thrive in the new working landscape. “The reality is an organization’s culture and its behaviors now have to work at a scale that they’ve never anticipated before through technology platforms and mediums they were wholly unprepared for,” added Martell.

Some companies have historically resisted remote work, citing declines in productivity rates. However, other observers have noted that the opposite can also be true in some cases, providing added benefits of flexibility for workers who need it. Companies will need to embrace the question as part of a nuanced approach to their corporate culture.

Martell noted a particular study conducted by Bain & Co., which suggested that companies who have communicated clear cultural values with their employees find their workforce 3.7 times more productive than those who have not.

A New Age of Technology

“We are in the golden age of HR technology,” observed McAlister. Addressing our webinar attendees, he noted, “You are a technologist whether you know it or not. This has really escalated and amplified our ability to bring in new, cool technologies that are just waiting to be used.”

While Zoom and virtual meeting platforms take hold, McAlister says there is yet more to come with technologies including digital interviewing and coaching, which go beyond standard video-conferencing capabilities.

With the rise of new technology, there is always a fear of the unknown and changes to our society that we cannot foresee. Our panelists said this fear could actually be used to our advantage. “Now we are thinking ten steps ahead,” said Prakash. “How do we ensure that these kinds of black-swan events can be responded to in a better way?”

Hiring at a Distance

If traditional procedures like the face-to-face interview become a relic of the past, moderator Walsh asked our panelists how they might carry out remote interviews in a fair and effective way.

“One thing we’ve learned working remotely is grace. We have much more grace for people,” says McAlister. “We saw Shaun’s cat earlier. It was fine. I wanted to meet the cat. It used to be called ‘work-life balance,’ now it’s life, and work happens to be part of it.”

The speakers predicted that talent managers and other HR leaders will get comfortable with their new tech tools and a more flexible understanding of where certain work needs to be done. “So often in recruiting we are told, ‘This role has to be in this office or in a certain location,’” added Martell. “I think that’s gone the way of the Dodo.”

At some point, there will come a time when companies will be rehiring furloughed or laid off employees and will need to do so as efficiently as possible. Before this happens, companies must account for the changes their company has endured and create detailed plans for employees returning to a changed company.

Polishing Those People Skills

“I dare anyone to think that leadership and management are soft skills,” said Martell. Inexperienced managers, or even those unfamiliar with managing remote teams, will need support and training to prepare for the year ahead.

McAlister agreed, noting that language does matter. “We’re calling them ‘power skills’ now,” he says. NetApp is also referring to talent management as “talent enablement” these days, which McAlister says makes a difference in how we approach the intersection of technology and solving new problems.

“For me it’s truth and authenticity,” he added. “There’s no other way. Any hemming and hawing or trying to blame somebody else for what’s going on, I think, is an abdication of responsibility and leadership.”

Leaders now have an opportunity to treat workers with the utmost respect and empathy, not just the ones they have to let go, but also to those who stick around. “It’s called Survivor Syndrome,” Martell noted. “[Returning employees] find that when they do go back to the office some people on their team are no longer there, either because they were laid off or because they were incredibly ill and unfortunately passed.” This trauma may run deep within our companies, providing an even greater need for leaders to step up.

Building empathy post-pandemic comes back to culture, and how members of an organization behave in times of crisis. “Sometimes you have your values pasted on the wall, but what do you actually do about that?” Slattery said.

Prakash suggests adding more support around mental health and therapy programs to help employees who are internalizing this situation in difficult ways. Large companies tend to offer programs like this, but they often go untouched because employees are not aware of them.

Hopeful Signs

Despite the grim headlines of the moment, our panelists offer hopeful insights about the future and the changes to come.

“This is the shining moment for you to deliver your values,” says McAlister. Referring to Slattery’s previous comment about posting values on a wall, he added, “It’s how you take those values off the wall and into people’s lives. This is when people feel it and remember it.”

This period can open up bursts of creativity in how we solve problems and restructure our environments. Slattery pointed out how the rise of consciousness about the needs of people with disabilities led to improvements that were more universal than intended. “There is great hope in the ways in which technology can help bridge those challenges,” he said. “Oftentimes, designing with disability in mind benefits all users.” He cited the example of sloped curbs, which have allowed for easier use not only of wheelchairs, but also strollers and luggage.

“It’s amazing how serendipitous things can be, despite the brutality of what’s going on globally,” said Martell.

Editor’s note: Thanks to those who joined this webinar live. Our next webinar, this Thursday, will focus on “Fresh Ways to Boost Your Employee Value Proposition.” You can register here.

Mimi Hayes is a New York-based author, comedian, and assistant director of content at From Day One. You can read her work at mimihayes.com, check out her podcast "Mimi and The Brain," or find her first book, a comedic memoir about her traumatic brain injury on Amazon.