(TNS) — Before COVID-19 shut down their office, employees of Bouchard Insurance would have described their work life as flexible.

If they only knew how much more flexible it could get. Enter the pandemic.

Now, nothing about work/life balance will ever be the same.

In the before times, the Clearwater-based company allowed employees to telecommute two days a week. But after a year of working exclusively from home, Bouchard’s vice president of human resources, Kelly Newton, knows that only two days of remote work won’t cut it for some employees. “Our office is technically open now if someone needs to go in,” Newton said. “We have the protocols and safety standards in place. But in the end, we know there is not going to be a point where we flip the switch and everyone goes back into the office.”

The very idea of what constitutes the workplace has changed in the past year. The employers that made the Tampa Bay Times annual Top Workplaces list reflect this new reality.

They showed an ability to adapt, and even thrive in some instances, that their employees found comforting and inspiring.

Most workplace leaders and experts agree that the structure of our work lives will be forever changed. It’s more than just a new understanding of the value in giving workers flexibility — it’s also the domino effect of that shift. What started as COVID-19 policies may be sticking around long-term — from virtual training and job interviews to easing up on the standard nine-to-five workday.

In the past year, employers have largely caught up to what employees had wanted all along in the way of remote work options, according to Andres Lares, an expert in COVID-19 workplace issues and a managing partner at Baltimore’s Shapiro Negotiations Institute.

“There was this old-school rigid mentality that if you’re not here, you’re not working,” Lares said. “But employers saw in the last year, you can still be productive at home.”

Benji Lynch, the director of digital marketing at Tampa’s Amzur Technologies, a custom software development and consulting business with 52 employees, said that working through the pandemic has helped bridge the gap between generations in her office.

The launch of remote work meant that Baby Boomers less comfortable with technology had to become savvier at video calls and get used to the idea that employees can be productive outside the office.

Lynch, the mother of a toddler, said her office loosened the reins on a standard workday. Parents couldn’t realistically work eight hours without interruption when their children’s day cares and schools were closed.

Many companies allowed staffers to work early and late to make up for time spent managing at-home childcare. It brought new meaning to the term “flex time.”

“If I don’t have to be collaborating with anyone, I don’t have to work during the 8 to 5 structured hours,” Lynch said. She anticipates a future that maintains some of that flexibility.

Yvette Lee, a workplace expert and adviser with the Society of Human Resources Management, said that in general, at-home child care has fallen more heavily on women during the pandemic. Yet, women are still the slight majority of the workforce, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Employers have had to re-imagine the workday to make things work,” Lee said. “They have seen that people can be productive ... working less hours on one day and longer hours on the other.

Some parents have found they’d rather save the money on outside childcare, as long as their employer is okay with flexible hours.

Newton, of Bouchard’s Insurance, said she occasionally still heads into the office. With desks spaced several feet apart and staffers wearing masks, she enjoys connecting with the handful of people who opt to work in the office on any given day. Like others, she missed the social connection of the workplace.

Once it’s safe, the company wants people to come back to the office, she said, but the approach will be different.

“Maybe they come in when they want,” she said. “Maybe it’s viewed more as a collaboration space than being at my desk every day. Maybe the home office will be their primary office, but they come in once a week for team meetings or periodically to collaborate with people or do a training session.”

Her company expects more people to opt for remote work, even when the risk of COVID-19 is no longer present, she said, although they’re not offloading office space.

But Lares, the workplace expert, said he expects some companies — especially in industries hard hit by the pandemic — to scale back on office space or renegotiate leases to save money. He can see a future where having a desk in an office is more a status symbol than a necessity.

Lee, the HR expert, said that virtual video sessions have been increasingly used for job interviews, hiring and on-boarding during the pandemic. Even when travel becomes less risky, she said some companies may opt to handle more of their hiring process over video calls.

“It just becomes more cost effective,” she said.

Lee expects the workplace of the future will be a hybrid of the one before COVID-19 and the one during.

“I don’t think anybody really thinks things are going to go back to pre-pandemic days,” Lee said. “And realistically speaking, we’re probably going to be in this situation longer than employers or anyone may like.”

Her advice to office workers and managers? Get comfortable looking at things differently.

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