RUMSON — Lori Rassas was working in human resources at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in January 2020, when she got the sense something was amiss: The museum urged employees to buy Purell.
Rassas stocked up, bringing extra bottles with her when she visited her parents at the Jersey Shore soon after.
“I’m not exactly sure I understand this, but take this,” Rassas told her parents, handing them the sanitizer. “Everybody thought I was off my rocker, but I’m, like, ‘No, something is going on.'”
Rassas has since left the Met for her own employment consulting firm, helping her clients navigate a workplace that has been upended by the pandemic.
It’s a role that has given her a close-up look at the benefits and drawbacks of working from home and provided lessons for employers and workers alike trying to adjust to the new landscape.
What the post-pandemic workplace looks like remains unsettled. The highly contagious delta variant remains a threat. Some employers have decided to push back their employees’ return date, even as those with at least 100 workers face a federal mandate to either vaccinate employees or test them for COVID once a week.
The pandemic, however, has a growing number of workers wondering why they need to be in the office at all.
A survey in July by the Conference Board, a business research group, found 43% of workers didn’t think they needed to return to the workplace, up from 31% who said the same in January.
Beneath the surface though was a more muddled picture. Baby Boomers wanted to return to the office more than millennials. Men more than women. CEOs more than the rank and file.
And people working from home didn’t sound all that happy.
“What’s striking is that the same workers who question returning to the workplace given high productivity while working remotely have also expressed greater concerns about mental health, stress, and burnout,” Rebecca Ray, executive vice president of human capital at The Conference Board, said.
Rassas, 49, lives in New York, but has deep ties to the Shore. Her family owned Rassas Buick in Red Bank for 83 years until it closed in 2013. And she graduated from Rumson-Fair Haven High School.
Rassas left the Metropolitan Museum of Art in August 2020 to focus on her consulting business and to write a book, “It’s About You Too,” advising managers how to navigate employee resistance to diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Now, she’s preparing to guide her clients through new terrain.
The workplace of the future includes idyllic scenes of workers finishing their reports from the beach — with no shortage of unintended consequences, Rassas said.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘That’s great, you can work in California,’ but what are you going to do about time zones? Who knows laws in California? Do you have to pay this person overtime?”
Rassas met with the Asbury Park Press in Rumson last week and talked about what’s in store for employers and employees in the age of the pandemic.
1. The great work-from-home experiment
Even before the pandemic, white-collar employees were slowly figuring out that they could work from anywhere as long as they had a laptop and internet access. When the pandemic hit, they had little choice.
“I always say it’s the greatest work-from-home experiment,” Rassas said. “I think it might have taken decades for everybody to really have gotten a chance to work from home and feel how it is. And so it did open people’s eyes to working from home. And I think a lot of people were surprised. Some people really liked it, some people didn’t like it. So that’s the one thing. It sort of fast-forwarded what the workplace could look like.”
2. The workplace looks a lot like your Zoom background
As people turned their computers on, cameras rolling, their living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens and patios were on display.
They tried to be presentable on Zoom calls, positioning their art work or crisply made bed behind them. But often, their messy lives were there for all to see.
Some workers juggled their job duties with child care. Others had spotty internet access. Some workers had to share computers with family members. Others still had front-line jobs with little choice but to work in person.
“I think one thing working from home really showed is the differences in employees that you might not otherwise see,” Rassas said. “You do see those equity issues.”
3. Baby Boomers, meet Generation Z
The pandemic highlighted generational differences.
Four generations are in the labor force, working side-by-virtual-side in what is making for an uneasy alliance.
Baby Boomers, ages 57 to 75, might prize in-person communication. Generation Z, in their early 20s, might not care about that, perhaps making it easier for them to adapt remotely.
“For me, it is very odd to have like a close working relationship with someone you’ve never seen,” Rassas, a Gen Xer, said. “But for someone who’s younger, if you look at Peloton, an exercise bike, there are people that say their best friends are on Peloton. They never met them, they never saw them. You look at Facebook, look at Twitter, all these things. The younger generations, they have great friends they’ve never met (in person). So they’re more accustomed to it. I think it’s going to be harder for people who didn’t grow up with that to build new relationships.”
4. Workers have the power, up to a point
The pandemic exposed a shortage of labor, giving workers a chance to drive a hard bargain — as long as they don’t go overboard.
“The foundations are still the same,” Rassas said. “Your boss is your boss. Be respectful, be on time, don’t miss deadlines, don’t not show up for meetings. The same rules apply.”
“Some things have changed,” she said. “In the past with remote work forces somebody would come to me and want to work remotely. And I would say, ‘Don’t bring that up. That’s something you earn. Get a job, work five days a week, see how it goes, prove your worth, and then maybe during your performance review, ask for a raise and say you want to work from home on Fridays.’ It used to be a benefit. Now, it’s definitely part of the initial conversation.”
5. Don’t count out the office just yet
The pandemic has been a life-is-short event that has prompted workers to think about what was important.
Did they want to commute for an hour each day? Did they want to miss family dinners? Wouldn’t it be nice to stop in the middle of the afternoon to take the dog for a walk?
But the answers are easier when everybody else is working remotely, too.
“How are you going to feel if half your team is in the office?” Rassas said. “Everyone has FOMO, the fear of missing out. Yes, it was great being remote, but everybody was remote. If half of your team is in the office having face time with the manager and you’re at home, are you still going to like being remote?”
Michael L. Diamond is a business reporter who has been writing about the New Jersey eocnomy and health care industry for more than 20 years. He can be reached at email@example.com.