Navigating the Return to Workplace

This month, Subject to Talent welcomes Rebecca Bray from Epitec, one of AGS’ strategic suppliers, to discuss how organizations are navigating their return to workplace plans. From safety requirements to company culture implications to the hybrid workplace opening up talent pools in the future of work.

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Transcript

Frank Edge: Thank you for joining us on this episode of Subject To Talent. I’m your host, Frank Edge.

Today’s we’ll be covering a topic that is top of mind to business leaders around the world: navigating the nuanced and often complex conversations and decision-making process around return to workplace planning

The conversation will be led by Erin Hough, executive for global supply chain at Allegis Global Solutions. Erin has over 15 years of workforce management experience and is responsible for leading a large team of supply chain consultants around the world. 

She’ll be joined by Rebecca Bray, chief sales officer at Epitec. Rebecca brings over 20 years of experience in talent solutions and is part of Epitec’s executive leadership team that sets strategic direction, defines priorities and responsible for delivering enterprise results and growth.  

Let’s listen in.

Erin Hough: Hi. I'm Erin Hough, executive for global supply chain at Allegis Global Solutions. I'm very excited to be joined by Rebecca Bray for today's conversation. Rebecca is the chief sales officer for Epitec, an IT, engineering and professional staffing organization. Welcome, Rebecca.

Rebecca Bray: Thank you, Erin, and thank you again for having me today. I'm so excited about this conversation that we're going to have.

EH: So am I. I'm so glad you were able to join us. Today we'll be discussing how organizations are navigating return to office plans, particularly for the contingent workforce. I asked Rebecca to join me today to share with us what Epitec is doing. Rebecca and her team have been a strategic supplier for AGS for over four years now. This is a huge accomplishment as the strategic supplier program is a small group of top performing suppliers and they make up our top 1% of all suppliers AGS works with across the globe. So, huge accomplishment. Congratulations to you and your team, Rebecca.

RB: Thank you so much, Erin. And like any true partnership, it would not have been possible without AGS's whole team support and mentorship of myself and our whole team. So, thank you for the opportunity.

EH: Well, we wanted to take a moment just to highlight you before we actually get into what is going on in the market and what Epitec is doing and what you're hearing. So, let's start off by me asking you a question about how you got into the talent/workforce solutions industry.

RB: Well, it's, I think, not unlike most of us that end up in staffing long-term with a passion for it. We kind of fall into it. I did not know much about staffing or recruiting, but I knew somebody at Epitec. I did an internship while in college, and then I did another internship. And when I got ready to graduate, I didn't know what I wanted to do. Epitec had provided an awesome opportunity. So, I thought, "Let me go back there full-time for a year or two until I figure out what I want to do." And here I am, 23 years later, absolutely loving this industry, loving this business and everything that it has to offer.

EH:That's awesome. There's always something new in staffing. Every day is a new day. Even though you might be doing the same job, that's new activities and new challenges. So, I'm the same. I just fell into this industry and still love it 15 years later. So, this episode that we're recording today is actually launching in May of 2021. So, depending on where you are in the world, different countries and regions are at very different stages of this virus and the level of restrictions that are in place. Some countries have already returned to the office, whereas others are trying to put a plan in place right now in order to ensure that employees are safe when they do return. So, this has been a really hot topic over the past few months. And in order to gain a broader view of is happening in the market, AGS recently issued a survey to our clients and our strategic partners in order to understand how they're approaching the return to the workplace planning.

I found that organizations are very optimistic about bringing workers back, but some have not decidedas of yet. Already, 32% of companies surveyed are working under a hybrid workforce deployment arrangement13% are weighing the pros and cons of vaccinations for their workers, and 21% said that they plan to return or will revisit plans in the June/July timeframe. Another 17% were going to wait until August. So, the main focus through these conversations is getting people back to the office safely. Rebecca, how are you seeing organizations address safety concerns?

RB: Well, Epitec, along with many of our customers, are really trying to understand how the climate is around the workers' feelings around returning to work and also education around what is needed to make people feel comfortable. And I think it's a holistic thing because there's the portion of, how do we get individuals back into working in our offices where it makes sense, when it makes sense, but it's also, everybody has had such an experience in, for the most part, isolation or in the bubble and the pods. So, returning to work is really only part of the conversation because it's also returning to all these other activities that used to be a normal for us. So, to think about, how do we bring individuals back into the workspace? We can't just think of it in this silo coming into the office, but it's all the other things that individuals need to tackle as the environment comes back to normal. And I'm hopeful that we will get there.

EH: Can you give any examples of some of the challenges that you're hearing from your employees?

RB: I think the flexibility option, as there is still a lot of talk around schooling for young children and a lot of districts are going back and forth with the remote and virtual learning versus in-person learning. And that's a huge concern around how to make that happen if somebody is in a district that the school is not in, or if the school needs to shut down for a quarantine period and have the children at home. Individuals are also managing multiple people or if there's somebody that's giving care to an elderly family member due to COVID and now how that plays into their schedule. So, I think some of those concerns are coming up, even where individuals are raising their hand and saying, "I would love the opportunity to come back and work in an environment where I can see my colleagues, have some collaboration." And that might not be five days a week, but some days a week. But again, there's also that balance between those other personal things going on that prevent challenges.

EH:Of course. That makes sense. We're hearing a lot about that as well at AGS. Are there concerns around safety within the workforce? If people can come back from a personal perspective, are they nervous to return to the office?

RB: I was actually speaking with our senior manager of HR just to get her take, because I know she's been out there also asking individuals and surveying and talking to people. And she says that based on some of the things she's reading, even in regards to companies that are receiving violations now for unsafe work practices, most of those come from individuals speaking out to the governing bodies like OSHA to say, "I think this company is requiring me to come into work, but people aren't masking up. People aren't social distancing. I don't feel comfortable." So, we do think that people are conscious of it and people are, in a lot of cases, maybe okay to come in the office if it's safe, but are not necessarily seeing that it's safe in a lot of environments.

EH:That makes sense. What is Epitec doing to make sure that your employees feel safe coming back to the office?

RB:For us, it's been a lot of education. Education, education, education. And what we can do to help them prepare for that and understand what we're doing to make sure that we are promoting and enforcing those safe guidelines, and then understanding what people can do in their own personal lives to help them get back into a cadence and a routine and be comfortable. So, we've held wellness webinars and we've had fantastic participation, actually, in these webinars, to help promote education and then offer up a path to question and the answer. So, people cannot just intake the information, but actually be able to have a place where they can, either with their name or autonomously, ask their question and have a safe space to get an answer in transparency and honesty.

EH: I think that's so incredibly important through these tough times because everyone is dealing with the pandemic in a different way, and everyone has their own level of stress. So, I think that's wonderful that Epitec is taking the time to really invest in their employees and show that wellness.

RB:One of the things that we're also doing to try to, when we think about sustainability and that continual support, one thing that has come up in our wellness webinars and our surveys is the fact that the physical being is very important. And there's been some people really leverage COVID and being at home. I know many people that took the opportunity and do better health management. And then we also have people that maybe didn't. And so having a good physical being is helpful, right? So we, in addition to communicating that to our employees, now we're also pushing out nationally a wellness challenge for May in support of building on that theme and giving an access to a program. We know when we work out with a buddy, it's more motivating. We know when there's little trinkets and surprises or medals at the intervals and end, that helps motivate individuals. So, we're going to do things to help our employees, not just to inform them.

EH:That's great. And do you find that people are getting involved even though most of them are still remote?

RB:We have actually way better participation now with the virtual activities than we did when it was in person. We don't know if that is, in part, to people are now more accustomed to doing things virtually, and maybe because there is a lack of as much social interaction as we used to have, but we are definitely seeing a big pickup. We hosted a virtual magic show for our employees in January when it's, for most of us in the Midwest, cold and snowy and dark, but we actually couldn't believe the amount of turnout we had and the feedback we received and how well it was received by our employees. Just something different, something that connected us nationally versus sometimes it's more of those regional events.

And everybody has a different view of, "Oh, I got a pizza party from Epitec, but I just got a letter in the mail because I'm in some town that maybe we don't have as large of a presence in." So, some of these virtual activities, we're finding that people like knowing that they're part of this bigger Epitec network and they're connected and they don't necessarily need to be physically by each other.

EH: That's wonderful. I think that that's probably a silver lining that has come out of us all having to go remote, is thinking more creatively about how we involve individuals on our teams and within the company. And in the past, we were doing events for anyone that was in one of the offices. But for those that maybe worked remote, they may have felt a little bit of isolation around those team activities. So, it's great to hear that Epitec is doing things like a magic show and it's involving everybody. AGS is doing things like that as well, and people are feeling much more included in the environment. Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about when it came to workers vaccinations and testing being onsite?

RB: Yes, we've definitely seen a lot of our customer conversations, and I know, Erin, you and I have talked about this, customers asking about, "Can they mandate vaccines for their workers if they're going to bring them back onsite?" So, I know that's a sticky topic right now. We have not seen anybody mandate that. In fact, even our healthcare customers currently are not requiring it. They are strongly encouraging it, and we are seeing a lot of customers offering access to and a path to get vaccinated, as well as a lot of education around it. And we are seeing a lot of our employees take advantage of those opportunities. But I think there's still a little ways to go until we see companies requiring it. I don't know if you've seen similar or not.

EH: We have, actually. We have heard that some organizations would like to mandate it, but at this point in time, it's something that's so sensitive and people have tomake a decision that's right for them. So, instead of moving forward with a mandate that, in order to come back to the office, you must have a vaccine, the dialogue of conversation changes to ways to make your teams feel more comfortable coming back to the office and what the safety precautions are. So, it's making sure that the kitchens are clean, that face masks are being worn when you're not sitting at your desk, you're separating people with six feet between each person, making sure that there's enough hand sanitization and so on, and really promoting that safe environment versus asking them to get a vaccine.

RB: Yeah. And you know what? Speaking of that safe work environment, something else that we were talking about internally and that we've seen is, because everybody's in a different personal situation and a different level of comfort, we have talked about, how do we, again, in being that inclusive culture, understand and educate our people that just because you are okay with something doesn't necessarily mean somebody else is, right? And I think that's where we're seeing some of those, "Well, the company says we need everyone to wear masks. People come in. You're my buddy. 'Hey, I'm okay if you take it off,' because I want to take my mask off."

And I think for us to educate our employees to say, "How about we just all agree while we're in certain spaces that this is protocol, and we're going to follow that protocol. Because you may not realize you're putting somebody else in an uncomfortable spot, that they really would prefer the mask on. But now, because you have a personal relationship, they don't know how to say they don't want to take their mask off, or they don't want you to take [your] mask off." So, some of our education also needs to be around, not just what we're doing, but why it's important to follow those protocols.

EH: That's an excellent point. Just making sure that people are educated on the safety of it and the reasons why we're doing it and that you need to be inclusive of everybody and how they're feeling. So, wonderful. 

Let's move on to talking about what is work going to look like moving forward. So, there's been a lot of talk about what the future of work will look like when we return to the office or to whatever this new normal is going to be. And we are observing through our experiences and conversations that many industries have different views, requirements and even values when it comes to bringing employees back to the office. Again, pulling from some data from the survey that we did, approximately one-third of organizations surveyed are waiting to communicate anything to their employees about their plan to return to the workplace. And interestingly, out of that 33% or one-third, 19% of companies said that they would not be returning to an onsite location and they have moved their workers to be fully remote.

actually just spoke with a partner yesterday who said that they have closed down multiple offices and they're going to encourage people to be working remote. There's definitely a little bit of fear around how to maintain a good cultural environment by doing that, and those are some challenges that will have to be overcome. Admittedly, a full remote approach does not always work in all industries or worker types, but the appetite and acceptance for a work-anywhere approach has certainly changed the future of work.

A lot of major high-tech brands have made blanket announcements saying their workers can work from home permanently, and some organizations mandating a return to the workplace are meeting resistance. While this is certainly not the case for all industries and regions around the world, it does bring forth a lot of conversation about re-imagining what the workplace could or should be. So, what are your thoughts on that, Rebecca, and what have you seen in the market and what is Epitec experiencing?

RB: Well, I think Epitec is definitely experiencing all those things that you have talked about and that your customers, our mutual customers, are talking about as far as some want folks back in, some don't care. Some feel they can be productive. Some are going to do that hybrid model. I do feel that more than not, people will go to that hybrid flexible model. I think through COVID that we've had so many things going on. And I think when we look at some of the positives that have come out of this, I think companies and individuals are learning that when we do different things and do things differently as we've had to do through COVID, it actually helps to promote inclusivity and it also helps to attract and retain a different talent pool. Sometimes if we require everybody to be in the office at all times Monday through Friday, it really limits our talent pool.

And so now the barriers are opening. And personally, I believe there's some benefit to some office time. And I think a lot of people are of that mindset, but that doesn't mean it needs to be all the time. One company recently announced that they're rolling outwork appropriately, and I love that kind of environment. Meaning some jobs sometimes need to be in the office. Sometimes they can be remote. Sometimes they can be hybrid, and it really depends on a lot of different factors. Because while some people thrive in a remote environment, I know many that don't. We personally just have had some people leave Epitec to go back already and work in an office environment. So, even though many offices aren't open, we're seeing people that are, in some cases, flocking to companies that are bringing people back because they want that type of work environment.They don't want to eat, sleep, live, work all in the same room at their house. So, we're seeing that. 

Personally around the companies that are announcing, "We'll let people do this permanently," I think, and Erin, we've been in the industry a long time, I think we've seen the extremes and I always feel like whenever something like that happens, in a few years we do see the pendulum shift. I don't think it's ever all one way or all the other way. So, I think while that may be the mindset today, I think we'll see what happens in two, three years.

EH: I would agree with that. As humans, we want to be social creatures. We want to be around people. So, I can see people starting to flock back to the office when they do feel safe. There's still a lot of unknowns at this point and many countries are rolling out the vaccine right now. So, until they hit that herd immunity, not everyone's going to feel safe to go back. So, I think that we will probably see more confidence in individuals wanting to return to the office and have that social side of their careers when the time is right. 

Interesting, I was speaking to one of our partners not too long ago, who mentioned that they were seeing individuals that were entering the workforce over the past year or two, those individuals immediately went into a work from home type environment if they entered the workforce towards the end of 2019 or the very beginning of 2020.

And this partner that I spoke with had mentioned that now that their organization is talking about going back to the office, they're receiving some resistance from these individuals that have just entered the workforce because they immediately went to work from home and they are doing a great job and they're productive. So, they're saying, "Why do I need to come back to the office?" Has Epitec experienced that at all, either with your internal employees, or are you seeing it with your contingent workers?

RB: Yes. We're definitely seeing that in both, right? In both the corporate staff and our contingent workforce. I think part of that's just change. When you talk about that's all they've ever known. Anytime we have change, there's resistance, no matter what it is, right? So, even when it was everybody went home, a lot of people were, "Ooh, I don't know if I can do this." And now that you've been doing it, you're like, "Ooh, I don't know if I want to go back." So, I think some of that initial resistance is just our personal resistance to change on the onset.

EH: I would agree with that. Once they get back into the office, they'll probably enjoy it if there's some flexibility there.

RB: Exactly.

EH: Was there anything else you wanted to talk about today when it came to returning to the office or what the workforce is going to look like when we go back to our new normal?

RB: I am hopeful that we do really have a lot of companies being able to adapt to a more flexible hybrid model, because I do feel like that, for the sake of the companies and a lot of what we do is in that technical space, so for the sake of tech, it really does open up the talent pools. And I think it does two things. One, it opens up the talent pools for our customers and companies, but it also opens up opportunities for individuals. And I think that when we look at driving a more diverse workforce and a more inclusive workforce, these are things and putting these tools in place to allow this flexibility and allow individuals to work for our companies that don't necessarily sit in the same city we do, I think that can be a game changer for work for these companies and for driving change through the future.

EH: Absolutely. So, now what we're going to be doing is recruiting the best skillset for that job rather than the best skillset that's available at the moment in a particular region.

RB: I mean, even when you look at some larger cities, right? I'm in the Detroit area. So, people will do, when they go in the office pre-COVID, a 40-, 50-minute commute. I can live 35 miles from my office in Michigan and do that commute. You look at a city like Atlanta, and there's no way. Or Dallas, there's no way. But now even if I'm in Dallas but I want somebody, even say in Texas, it just opens up the pool. So, I don't necessarily even need to go to a coast to get some talent. Even if I kept it within the same region, but it still just opens up just a plethora of talent that is out there.

EH: That's perfect. So, it will provide more opportunities for companies to have that skillset, but hopefully it will provide opportunities for people that work remote or need that flexibility, that maybe had some challenges pre-COVID trying to find an opportunity that would be right for them. Well, this was a great discussion today about a very important topic. Rebecca, I really appreciate you spending some time with me today and sharing your experiences and expertise with our audience.

RB: Erin, thank you so much for having me. And again, thank you and the Allegis team for everything that you do to support us in our growth and development as a minority company.

EH: Well, thank you. We appreciate your partnership.

FE: Thank you for joining us today. A special thank you to Erin and Rebecca for sharing their insights around how organizations are navigating their return to office and what lingering effects the pandemic may have on the future of work and the workplace. 

If you would like to learn more about Allegis Global Solutions please check us out at Allegisglobalsolutions.com. If you have any questions for Erin or Rebecca feel free to tweet us @allegisglobal with the #SubjectToTalent. Also, you can email us at SubjectToTalent@allegisglobalsolutions.com If you enjoyed our podcast today please subscribe, rate us, and leave a review. Until next time! Cheers!

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