Feeling the distance: Coronavirus-induced remote work muddles office culture | Business News

Exchanging good mornings in the elevator. Potlucks in the canteen. Brainstorming in the conference room.

These happenings used to be common at the workplace.

But thinned by COVID-19, an office environment today can be as hard to find as hand sanitizer.

CommunityCare, a health insurance company, normally employs about 425 people downtown at Williams Center Tower II. Because of the coronavirus, that number has been reduced to roughly 120, said Sherri White, vice president of operations.

“I do miss the camaraderie, and I think that our employees do, too,” said White, among those working from home. “You miss a little bit of the face-to-face dynamic. It is a different component.

“(Office work) makes you feel a little bit more connected. If anything, this has made us feel a little more disconnected. So we’re making sure we do those things that let them know we’re here for them.”

CommunityCare’s Dana Ines has been punching the clock from her residence since late March, saving on gas and eating out but pining for the fellowship of peers.

“I’ve been there 20 years, so I know almost everyone,” she said. “I probably converse more when I’m at work. Here, I’m just at my work station, answering my emails, answering the phones. I’ve probably gotten more work done at home, believe it or not.”

Tulsa energy company Williams, which is headquartered in the BOK Tower, reported that an average of only 17% of its 1,000 local employees checked into the office between July 6 and Aug. 12, spokesman Tom Droege said.

“We found that our employees were very flexible to be able to do this and fairly efficient for the most part,” Chief Operating Officer Micheal Dunn said of the months-long distance working. “Obviously, they were taking care of a lot of situations at home with either children that were trying to go to school still online or family members who were at higher risk.

“(Distance employment) makes it a little harder to collaborate with your teams. There’s a lot of work that gets done just by walking around and talking to people. That’s obviously a lot more difficult now.”

International real estate giant CBRE Group conducted a survey in June of 126 global companies with an American presence.

A total of 70% of the respondents said their companies plan to offer some segment of their workforce the choice of working remotely on a full-time basis, a percentage that has nearly doubled since before the pandemic.

“The biggest takeaway that was actually confirmed for us … was that people are going to have more choice over what they do every day,” said Julie Whelan, office research head for CBRE Americas. “That will flow through with how office space is used in the future, which is going to make an impact on what our real estate market is in the future.”

Nearly half the respondents in the CBRE survey (49%) said they expect the state of the business environment to be better within six months.

“We wrote a piece called ‘The Fluid Workplace,’ where we knew that this was happening. We assumed that this was going to happen over 10 years. What we could have never imagined is that over a period of four months, that we probably leaped forward three to five years in our journey toward this because everybody was forced to do it.”

Lease adjustments and how firms alter their footprints will depend on the duration of the pandemic, said Shawna Hale, who works locally in the industrial, office and retail sectors for Wiggin Properties.

“A lot of companies realize that they don’t need any office, but the majority still feel like they need a presence on some level, outside of a home base and a telephone,” she said. “What we think is going to happen after a year or two, maybe not that long, is that they are going to start realizing that (remote work) was good at first.

“However, some of their workforce are not going to be have trouble keeping the same level of motivation. They are going to lose aspects of being in an office daily, just the synergy. There’s not going to be as much opportunity for collaboration.”

The lingering health crisis could force CommunityCare to address the size of its physical presence, White said.

“We will continue to assess where we are, parking downtown, work space downtown, the commute downtown,” she said. “Everybody is looking at that from a logistical and demographic standpoint. We’re certainly no different than any other company.

“We will definitely always have a presence. I just know whether the footprint will be as large as it has been in the past.”

Williams owns the BOK Tower and sports one of the largest employment bases downtown. Maintaining that tangible branding as much as possible is important to Williams’ well-being, Dunn said.

“I don’t think ultimately that completely downsizing is the way to build a culture and a business,” he said. “There are certain roles that can be accommodated remotely. For the most part, we are likely going to continue to be an office space company. We think that’s the best way to create a culture here in the business that we want to have and the best way to create collaboration among our employees.”

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