An Office Environment Revolution: The Working World after COVID

by Christina M. Olear, CPA, Frank M. Sorokach, and Ashley L. Stampone, CPA | Aug 31, 2021

ReturnOffice_250x383With more than nine months of availability of multiple COVID-19 vaccinations, many U.S. businesses have committed to reopening their offices in fall 2021. Firms have been preparing for a safe return to in-person work, but the pandemic undoubtedly changed the operational landscape. In addition to employee safety, firms must also manage the intricacies and implications of hybrid and remote work.

Human resources policies and overall business planning are necessary to facilitate a smooth transition for staff while keeping all stakeholders satisfied and ensuring compliance with laws and regulations. Even greater attention may be needed for those employees hired after March 2020 who have not experienced their company’s office culture thus far.

Navigating this landscape is complicated. Employers would like to see employees return to the office, but many workers do not want to come back to the physical office on a daily basis. Some white-collar workers are more receptive to a flexible option of a few days in the office and a few remote days per week.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 50% of the U.S. population had been vaccinated as of August 2021. If the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fully clears at least one of the vaccines by the end of the year as predicted, will this be enough to increase the vaccination rate significantly? (Currently, the vaccines have emergency-use approvals.) One source predicts that a third of unvaccinated individuals would get the vaccine after full FDA clearance of any of the vaccines.1

Wall Street is pushing for a quick return to the office. Several companies require employees to state their vaccination status, including Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase & Co. Several Pennsylvania higher education institutions – including the University of Pennsylvania, Villanova University, St. Joseph’s University, Drexel University, Chatham University, and University of Scranton – also require employees and students to be vaccinated for a fall return to campus. Other companies and institutions indicate vaccination requirements will hinge on full FDA approval of the vaccines.2

Among the Big 4 accounting firms, PwC has committed to a hybrid work model for reopening additional offices in the fall. Employees will select from three different work location options: primarily from home, from the office, or a mix of both. The firm reopened nine U.S. locations in May and had plans to have most offices reopened by September. Other major firms, including KPMG, have committed to similar plans.3 

A January 2021 survey of U.S. workers and executives conducted by PwC found that employee productivity levels were maintained, and in some instances surpassed, from home. In fact, 83% of employers said the shift to remote work had been a success, up from 73% who indicated the same in PwC’s June 2020 survey.4 If remote workers were productive while juggling caregiving and other responsibilities, perhaps remote productivity would further increase once schools and businesses normalize.

Although employers’ most commonly cited reason for a desired return to the office (at least three days a week)5 is to maintain company culture, an appropriate office reopening plan with flexible, well-thought-out human resources policies can preserve company culture. 

The following sections highlight some of the trends and options employers and employees should consider when preparing a return to the office, especially if they plan to embrace hybrid and virtual work models.

Considerations

Employee safety – One of the biggest questions associated with reopening offices has been, “How do we keep our employees safe?” Firms must recognize that many employees will be extra cautious and anxious when returning to in-person work, especially if they or a loved one were affected by COVID-19. Communicating safety plans with employees will help alleviate some of those fears.

When returning to the office, organizations should answer the following questions: 

  • Have we established cleaning and disinfecting protocols?
  • Do we have guidelines established for social distancing? 
  • Is there a plan in place to ensure we are following all state and federal safety guidelines?
  • If needed, can we secure the necessary personal protective equipment for employees? 
  • How will we define visitor and contingent workforce protocols and screening processes?
  • Do we have a plan for notifying employees of potential in-office exposure? 
  • Have we developed a policy for personal and business travel?
  • Is there a contingency plan in place in the event of a significant spike in COVID-19? 
  • Is there a risk management process in place to account for any new personnel safety risks?6

Office space – Organizations that embrace a hybrid work model should also consider redesigning their office space to meet the updated needs of employees. Not only will firms need to consider employee safety, but they will also need to design work spaces for those who come to the office only two to three days a week as well as more permanent work spaces for those who return to the office full-time. Work space arrangements may also require adding more areas for employees to appropriately hold virtual meetings. Organizations must determine which type of temporary work space (employees use whichever workstation is available or desk space must be booked in advance) works best for each office, and they must communicate to employees how to go about ensuring space is available for their specific location. 

Many organizations, in fact, are rethinking their office space altogether. In a recent survey conducted by Deloitte, 39% of client respondents indicated an expected 1% to 20% office space reduction; those organizations planning a hybrid strategy indicated they are 4.5 times more likely to have space reductions of more than 10%.7 PwC’s survey earlier this year indicated that an overwhelming 87% of respondents expect to make changes to their real estate strategy, with six in 10 expecting to consolidate office space.8 Reasons given for reductions in the office footprint include reducing costs (63%), growth in work from home population (49%), employee feedback (28%), lease terms coming due (23%), and employee safety and company liability (15%).9 

For firms significantly reducing their office footprint, a satellite construct might be a viable option for those offering a flexible work model. Deemed the “hub and spoke” model, the “hub” allows for a centralized location for employees to come together, while the “spoke” can be any productive working location, such as a smaller office, coffee shop, or home.10 Deloitte, KPMG, and PwC have been considering this model.11 PwC’s Workforce Pulse Survey indicates that 12% of employees live more than 50 miles away from their office, while another 22% of employees plan to do so.12 Movement to the “hub and spoke” model would allow relocated employees to continue hybrid employment with the firm, eliminate the need for employees to take mass transit to a metro office, and allow the firm to continue to expand its workforce, client base, and reach outside major cities. 

Onboarding and orientation – The virtual onboarding of new hires was vital during COVID-19 remote work, and 38% of organizations worked to improve the process. With the adoption of hybrid and virtual working models, this trend likely will continue.13

Virtual onboarding includes several phases. Virtual orientation sessions educate new hires on the company’s mission, values, policies, first assignments, and ongoing support from teams, coaches, or mentors. Doing this virtually means organizations (often human resources) need to plan out each step of the process and create avenues for new hires to ask questions and seek support when needed. Miro, a business that helps facilitate remote work, offers five tips for virtual onboarding:

  • Develop a two-week plan containing daily agendas and video links to work-based sessions and icebreakers. Provide opportunities for new hires to learn processes and network with coworkers. 
  • Start new hires with small projects that include cross-collaboration. Develop a clear plan for the first 30, 60, and 90 days. 
  • Onboard in cohorts to minimize training redundancies. 
  • Request feedback on the onboarding process. 
  • Make space for personal connections where teams introduce themselves early during the onboarding process. 

Taxes – While many organizations will capitalize on spreading out their employee footprint virtually, having fully or partially remote workers could create administrative burdens and taxing issues for organizations, even if an employee move is temporary. Firms need to ask the following:

  • Are we reporting wage withholding and/or unemployment earnings to the correct states? 
  • How does this change if employees do not regularly report to the office or go to the office at all? 
  • What if virtual employees move to new states, thus creating nexus in locations we are not set up for? 

A 2020 survey by Deloitte indicated that 30% of organizations said that they would need to make changes to payroll withholding and income reporting in temporary work states. That same survey also indicated that only 45% of organizations actively tracked employees’ remote work locations, with 65% anticipating tracking locations once offices have fully reopened and 34% having no plans to track at all.14 Organizations offering remote or hybrid work opportunities after offices reopen should consider confirming employee work locations when outside the office to maintain proper state tax nexus compliance.

Virtual and hybrid employees should also be aware of their state income tax regulations, especially if they live and work in states where reciprocity agreements may not exist. Each scenario will impact the employee’s state tax filings and applicable tax rates. 

Support Outside Office

Home office support – The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 ended home office deductions from 2018 to 2025. But for those who shifted to a virtual working environment, home office spaces do not come without cost. Internet connections (which often need upgraded speed and bandwidth), Wi-Fi hotspots, cell phone plans, office furniture, and office technology have been necessary resources to work from home. As such, employees have been looking to firms to help alleviate the costs associated with these items. 

To assist employees with these costs, 36% of organizations have offered or reimbursed employees for office technology, 13% have helped pay for connectivity (including internet, Wi-Fi hotspot, or enhanced cell phone service), 9% have provided a general stipend for office costs, 8% have alleviated the cost of office space and furniture, and 17% have not offered any additional support or benefits at all, leaving employees to fully absorb these expenses.15

For firms offering hybrid or remote work going forward, they should consider either providing employees with the technological resources necessary to work from home or a stipend to help alleviate the expenses associated with a home office. This not only ensures the employee has the right tools to be successful, but also will reaffirm the organization’s commitment to hybrid and virtual work policies.

Employee equity – At least half of employees want to work remotely three days a week or more.16 These employees will have valid concerns about opportunities for advancement and promotion. Will they be viewed as productive as in-office coworkers? How will their performance be measured? What happens if they elect different working hours than their peers?

Firms should adopt clear and transparent policies regarding hybrid and virtual work. Human resources functions should, at minimum, adhere to the following: 

  • Continuously communicate the skills and critical performance indicators required for promotion.
  • Schedule check-in points to ensure all employees are aware of their advancement plan. 
  • Create assessment measures less vulnerable to proximity bias. 

The pandemic placed a strain on working parents and women and affected the mental health of many. A report by Arizent, a business information company, indicates only 8% of organizations provide childcare support, even though the Department of Labor reported that the employment rates of women are at their lowest since 1987. Additionally, employee burnout is at an all-time high while employee mental health is at an all-time low, but only 19% of employers have made permanent changes to employee assistance programs for counseling and mental health.17 

When considering office reopening and virtual work plans, employers should seriously consider offering the benefits needed to support the success of all employees, including its more vulnerable teammates.

Return to the Office

Communication is vital for successful reintegration back to the office. Individual circumstances regarding work, family, and health issues may need custom solutions. Since return-to-office policies are new territory, it can be difficult to anticipate the needs of all employees.

Additionally, regular communication with your colleagues will facilitate a better work environment for all. Providing project status updates and asking questions shows initiative and engagement, as does offering help to others. Teamwork and collaboration will strengthen connections and provide opportunities to learn more about the company and emerging trends. Seeking feedback will also demonstrate a conscientious and collegial attitude. 

Attendance at in-person office events will help with reengaging colleagues and meeting new staff. While most returnees will have had office exposure, this may be new territory for those hired after March 2020. If you are new to the office, try these tips for an easier transition:

  • Overcommunicate – If you are new to the office and plan to use a hybrid working model, please ensure you communicate your office plans with your teams and supervisors. Make sure your managers know what days you plan to be in the office versus working from home. Continuously communicate project status updates.
  • Proactively plan to meet your coworkers in-person – Find opportunities to meet coworkers you know only from online interactions. Then, proactively reach out and schedule time to say hello.
  • Seek a buddy – If possible, try to meet with an experienced coworker who can “show you the ropes” around the office. Ask him or her to show you the work space and introduce you to fellow team members. 
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions – The first day in the office is going to feel like the first day at a new job, except you may have already been working for the firm for over a year. Do not be afraid to ask questions, even if they are about conference room locations or lunch spots.

Face-to-face interactions with teammates will immeasurably aid with integration into this new working environment. 

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably accelerated a movement toward virtual and hybrid work. To be successful, organizations must embrace office spaces and policies that align with today’s work behaviors. Firms should consider developing comprehensive, transparent, inclusive, and flexible return-to-office policies to set the stage for success. Promoting an environment where employees feel trusted and valued will go a long way toward increasing their commitment, which will translate to better worker productivity, employee satisfaction, and decreased turnover in time.  

1 Jaimy Lee, Jillian Berman, and Andrew Keshner, “Full FDA Approval of Pfizer’s and Moderna’s COVID-19 Shots Would Reinvigorate the U.S. Vaccination Push – But It Could Still Be Months Away,” MarketWatch (July 2021).
2 Kennedy Rose, “Here’s a Look at Which Philadelphia-Area Colleges and Universities Are Going Back to In-Person Classes This Fall,” Philadelphia Business Journal (May 7, 2021).
3 Amanda Iacone, “PwC to Offer Hybrid Plans as Accounting Eyes Return to Office,” Bloomberg Tax (April 9, 2021).
4 U.S. Remote Work Survey, PwC (Jan. 12, 2021). www.pwc.com/us/en/library/covid-19/us-remote-work-survey.html
5 Ibid. 
6 “Reboot: Returning to the Workplace,” PwC. www.pwc.com/cb/en/about-us/assets/pwc-covid-19-reboot-return-to-work-cb.pdf
7 “2021 Return to Workplace Survey,” Deloitte (April 2021). www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/us/Documents/human-capital/us-2021-return-to-workplaces-survey.pdf
8 U.S. Remote Work Survey, PwC (Jan. 12, 2021). www.pwc.com/us/en/library/covid-19/us-remote-work-survey.html
9 Alyssa Place, “Future of Work 2021,” Arizent (2021). https://arizent.brightspotcdn.com/63/db/33e0a3354dda9150d37a6f895455/future-of-work-061621.pdf 
10 Bryan Robinson, PhD, “Hub-and-Spoke: The New Office Model of the Future, Expert Says,” Forbes (June 9, 2021).
11 Chris Gaetano, “Deloitte, KPMG, PwC Exploring ‘Hub and Spoke’ Model for Offices,” The Trusted Professional (Sept. 2, 2020). 
12 “PwC’s Workforce Pulse Survey,” PwC (March 24, 2021). www.pwc.com/us/en/services/consulting/workforce-of-the-future/library/workforce-pulse-survey.html
13 U.S. Remote Work Survey, PwC (Jan. 12, 2021). www.pwc.com/us/en/library/covid-19/us-remote-work-survey.html
14 2020 Remote Work Survey: The Impact of Remote Workers on Payroll and Employment Tax, Deloitte (November 2020).
15 Ibid.
16 U.S. Remote Work Survey, PwC (Jan. 12, 2021). www.pwc.com/us/en/library/covid-19/us-remote-work-survey.html

17 Alyssa Place, “Future of Work 2021,” Arizent (2021). https://arizent.brightspotcdn.com/63/db/33e0a3354dda9150d37a6f895455/future-of-work-061621.pdf

 


 

Christina M. Olear, CPA, is an assistant teaching professor of accounting at Pennsylvania State University - Brandywine in Media and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. She can be reached at cmo16@psu.edu.

Frank M. Sorokach is a digital faculty consultant for McGraw Hill, a lecturer at Pennsylvania State University’s Scranton and World campuses, and owner of FM Sorokach Agency and FMS Holdings LLC, both in Tunkhannock. He can be reached at fms16@psu.edu.

Ashley L. Stampone, CPA, is a faculty specialist at the University of Scranton in Scranton and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. She can be reached at ashley.stampone@scranton.edu.

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