A big question that has not gone away in the last 18 months of the pandemic: what is the future of work?
The more remote businesses operate, the more employees get used to the model, and the more everyone begins to accept it as the new normal. But there are of course those who want to return to work in person, citing workplace culture, networking, and easier collaborations as benefits of face-to-face collaboration.
Earlier this summer, Technically published a poll of Code and provisioning showing that the majority of local technologists surveyed were strongly in favor of continuing to work remotely after the pandemic. But other reports in recent months have also shown that some of Pittsburgh’s biggest companies are pushing for at least one in-person presence.
This debate continued during the inaugural session Pittsburgh built in rust conference last Friday, when leaders from local universities, real estate companies, nonprofits and coworking spaces gathered to discuss plans for the future. In addition, the director of the virtual reality company XRconnected, Karen alexander, joined to share ideas on how this technology may soon become a staple of the American workplace. The reception of the discussion was Hudson Knowledge Development, a government relations liaison for the City of Pittsburgh Housing Authority.
Read excerpts from the conversation below, which have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Is Pittsburgh ready to get back to work? Are we ready to go to the office?
Nadyli Nuñez, executive director of the Ascender coworking space: Statistically, we are not. A higher percentage wish to remain hybrid. We have to rethink [our approach]. The people we bring back to the office are not the same people we had before the pandemic. Why don’t they want to come to work? What are we doing wrong?
Geoff Greco, Vice President of Tenant Advisory Services at Commercial Real Estate Company JLL Pittsburgh: Lots of conversations [with our clients] are there, how can we implement new technology in the space to make it accommodating for people who want to have this hybrid model? This is where discussions are still ongoing. There is no perfect solution.
David Dausey, EVP and rector of Duquesne University: In some ways, it depends on what you do and what your role is. We are a campus of 10,000 students and they need people to help them. It’s a broader discussion even within organizations, as there are a lot of nuances within those organizations as to who can walk away completely, telecommute, or come to the office.
Eric Somerville, CEO of the Venture for America Startup Fellowship Program: Are we ready? Probably not, because we are still discussing it.
How do you manage security protocols in your organizations?
Somerville: When things were really risky [as we tried to] Keep track and stay in sync with all the information and best practices we’ve said, we’re going to step back. My concern is twofold. Firstly, I am certainly concerned about our comrades going to cities, but also how our comrades see the value of our organization if we do not go back in person. The making of the sausage is when we are in person.
Dausey: It’s all a matter of probability and risk. We had to look at what we know about the virus? What do we know about the likelihood of its spread? We had to sort of balance these many considerations. Right now we have a face mask warrant that hasn’t been incredibly popular in all circles. We have a vaccination mandate for all students and employees. It’s a combination of carrots and sticks because you don’t want to create a police state, but you want to keep people safe. We did a lot of carrots before sticks, but it requires a combination of the two.
Nunez: For us, our space is completely open. One of the things we did was survey the community and ask them how they feel and get as many responses as possible knowing that whatever we decide we would explain why. How can we be smart about it and clean up spaces so people feel safe? We always accept and take these comments seriously and adjust accordingly.
Greco: There are shared decisions. But I will say that companies are thinking about embracing the “we” concept as opposed to the “me” concept – by increasing the spaces for collaboration. Companies are looking to implement new technologies in the space that make it easier for people to connect not only with others in the office, but also outside.
Do you see a lack of community in remote working environments?
Greco: When you hire a new employee and hire them virtually, they don’t get that brand feeling, based on customer discussions we’ve had. It’s hard to do it virtually. Being tied to a tangible office and having that community around you – where it’s your first day and your boss invites you to lunch or a happy hour with the rest of the team – you lose that sense of association to the brand. You need this human interaction, this human connection.
Alexander: One of the things I did during the pandemic with some colleagues was find an organization called XR Women, and we meet every week. We have built a huge sense of community through this. It’s wonderful because we see our friends coming back.
Somerville: We have sought to replicate all of these connection points that you would have in your community. We are using Soft. We have a channel on the Olympics, one on general topics. We will have discussions over an online coffee. Originally I was wondering, how are we going to maintain a sense of community? We sought to counter that and say, “Let’s create a space in these times where people can just show up. It’s not the same – I think we lose a lot by not having a community in person. But it has helped people to feel that sense of cohesion.
Nunez: The purpose of the community is to bring you together. There are digital and in-person communities. You just have to remember that you can build community – the pandemic is just forcing us to rethink how to build community and what made us successful when we were in person. In fact, some people became more active when we provided a digital platform.
Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member of Report for America, an initiative of the Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.