Returning to Work: Flooring producers discuss strategies for getting employees back to the office - July 2021

By Meg Scarbrough

It’s been 16 months since millions of American white-collar workers traded conference rooms and cubicles for Zoom meetings and makeshift home offices as the world began to shelter in place. Much of the flooring industry was no exception. Says Greg Minano, chief human resources officer at Interface, “Our global offices emptied overnight in 2020.” But with new infection cases on the decline and vaccination rates rising across the country, confidence is growing around returning to the traditional office space.

Now, moving forward, companies are weighing how to bring employees back safely, if at all, and what the future of office work looks like. There is no handbook for such a monumental task, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but companies and, for the most part, their employees are ready for a return to normalcy.

We talked to several leading flooring producers about challenges over the past year, their strategies moving forward and what hurdles remain.

Employers are eager to get workers back into the office. But how ready are the workers? An April Gallup poll shows that 72% of America’s white-collar workforce-those jobs traditionally performed in an office or behind a computer and not necessarily client-facing or sales forces-is still working from home. The poll says that 40% of those white-collar workers would like to continue working from home because they prefer it, and another 11% would opt to stay remote because of concerns about the coronavirus. The poll notes that the data varies based on specific occupations.

At Interface, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, it appears many are ready to return. Says Minano, “In April, we conducted an internal employee survey and found that 76% of our employees are comfortable returning to our global headquarters, dubbed Base Camp internally. And we hear similar feedback from employees around the world.”

Companies point to the importance of in-person collaboration as a key to success and why getting back to the office is critical.

Minano says, “We believe in the value of face-to-face interaction and collaboration between colleagues and want to get back to connecting with each other in-person. Technology platforms that enable remote collaboration will be important tools going forward, but just because some work can get done remotely doesn’t mean it is always the best choice for enabling culture and innovation. Collaboration is a critical part of our culture.”

Shaw reopened all of its administrative buildings to associates on May 3. Says Mike Fromm, chief human resources officer of Shaw Industries, headquartered in Dalton, Georgia, “It’s exciting to have people on campus more regularly because we know these in-person interactions create more opportunities for the kind of collaboration that drives innovation, fosters creativity and aligns us around a shared vision. That said, we also know the way we work won’t ever look the same as it did before the pandemic.”

Says Minano, “We are in the process of transitioning back to the office, which will take place over the next several months.” He says the company began allowing people back into the office last summer for a couple of days a week, but only if they felt comfortable doing so and if their personal circumstances allowed it.

On the other hand, some, like Dalton, Georgia-based The Dixie Group, never left. Says Dan Phelan, vice president of hard surface sales, “We’ve been in the office the whole time.”

To help ease anxiety for those who have been working remotely, some companies are offering hybrid schedules in which employees are allowed to work at home and in the office on an alternating basis. Others are transitioning to make some positions remote permanently.

Says Louis Fordham, vice president of human resources for Engineered Floors (EF), based in Dalton, Georgia, “Approximately 75% of administrative employees worked remotely during the pandemic. We are currently working to determine how many will remain remote, but as of now, numbers indicate that over 50% will continue in either a full-time or hybrid remote structure.” He adds, “We do not have a firm deadline, but are currently working to determine how EF will structure roles that have been working remotely due to Covid-19. Going forward, we anticipate having three structures: full-time remote positions, full-time office positions and hybrids (flex schedules, telecommuting, etc.).”

Minano says, “Under our hybrid approach, we’re asking employees to work from Base Camp three or more days in an average work week by September, allowing our people to steadily return to the office without expecting employees to be in the office every day or all day long.”

Shaw says some groups, including within the customer service and IT organizations, have moved to working remotely full time, and many of its other teams are transitioning to a hybrid schedule.

For those debating whether to allow workers to stay home, there’s good news: It turns out that workers can, in fact, be productive while working from home. A recent study, “Work After Lockdown” by the University of Southampton in the U.K., found that productivity actually increased in the past year, with 54% of survey respondents reporting they were doing more work per hour than prior to the pandemic.

Fordham says EF management has done a good job structuring a remote system, adding, “We are confident they can effectively manage it moving forward. The most important thing is to have productive and engaged employees who help EF serve and support our customers.”

So what will be different for employees when they return?

Says Minano, “When offices emptied in March 2020, we understood we would need to redesign our global headquarters in response to changing employee needs. Our redesign would center on a few key updates: behavior, technology and design. We also wanted the building to reflect the space’s original intentions as a gathering place and a showcase of workplace design innovation, while also responding to the current attitudes and needs of our employees to feel safe coming back in.”

When Interface’s employees return, he says they can expect to see the company’s own modular flooring products arranged to subtly suggest social distancing, traffic and zone cues within the space. They will also notice that furniture has been rearranged and replaced to create more open-air, collaborative spaces.

Minano adds, “In terms of technology updates, we introduced a desk reservation system to continue to promote safe distancing for employees while also providing us the flexibility to turn desks ‘off’ or ‘on’ as we continue to adjust our capacity as the current state of the pandemic allows.” For in-person meetings, employees will be asked to social distance and wear masks where it is not possible to remain at least six feet apart from coworkers. Employees will also be required to wear masks while circulating in public spaces. The company says it will continue to closely monitor changes in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance and vaccination rates.

Fromm says Shaw is also making adjustments to its campus to better support hybrid and remote teams, like adding more hoteling workspaces and ensuring conference rooms are equipped to effectively support hybrid meetings. He adds, “We feel like connectivity is key for associates in building the trusting relationships that drive our business forward and creating an environment where everyone can deliver their best work.”

For associates working in the office, the company has upgraded some of the amenities it provides on-campus, including at its cafe that serves breakfast and lunch. Fromm adds, “Our goal is for every associate to feel supported and comfortable bringing their whole self to work-wherever they are.”

At Engineered Floors, things seem to be returning to business as usual, according to Fordham. He says, “There are some obvious changes, such as additional sanitization stations, availability of masks for visitors, etc. Without question, all employees are more aware and sensitive to personal hygiene and will be respectful of individuals who choose to take extra precautions. We do expect to see new behaviors, such as employees masking during the flu season or even during peak pollen seasons.” He says the company also anticipates more utilization of web-based teleconferencing for meetings and activities, during which employees would have historically come together in person. He says the reason for this is less about Covid and more about efficiency, time and cost improvements due to less travel and time away from the jobsite.

Fordham says the key to transitioning back to the office is creating a very deliberate and patient process that considers all aspects and recognizes that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach. He says, “Clear and timely communications that allow employees to know what is happening and give reasonable time to plan and adjust” can help them adjust post-pandemic.

For some, the transparent approach is paying off. Says Minano, “As we communicated our redesign strategy and while the vaccine rollout continued, more employees expressed interest and higher comfort levels in returning to the office.” He adds, “And, while people still feel productive at home, they are confident that our building changes will help keep us healthy, are ready to collaborate and socialize in-person, and understand the value of face-to-face interaction for our culture.”

Says Fromm, “We believe that an excellent customer experience begins with an excellent associate experience, and that belief is foundational to how we’ve approached return to office. Where, when and how associates work must be driven by business needs and how we can best serve our customers. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, and we are encouraging our leaders to create an environment of trust and empowerment on their teams.”

At Armstrong Flooring, the shift back to corporate settings comes at a time in which the company was already assessing its in-house workforce.

This summer, the company is opening a new 30,000-square-foot headquarters in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The new office will house 60 employees from the company’s new product development, innovation and engineering teams, the company says.

According to John Bassett, head of human resources for Armstrong, the new office will not have assigned offices or workstations. He says, “In our previous headquarters, everyone had an office or assigned workstation.” Instead, the new space focuses on collaboration and people interacting with one another,” and spaces will be allocated via an online reservation system. He adds, “It’s going to be dramatically different than what we used to have.” He says that while this was in the works prior to last year, the pandemic, in many ways, helped the transition.

Basset counts himself among those excited about being back in the office. He says, “I’m looking forward to getting back into a routine. But on the other side of it, I mean, my dry-cleaning bill is significantly less than before.”

Supporting employees’ health and well-being goes beyond physical changes to the office environment. In a year in which some saw family members or loved ones die from the disease, pressure from social isolation and just the reality of living in a global pandemic has taken an emotional toll on countless individuals.

A 2020 report from the CDC said 40% of adults surveyed reported struggling with substance abuse or mental health related to the pandemic.

It’s an issue that Bassett says has been front of mind from the start. He says, “I think all of us, no matter what job, have a good appreciation for how hard this has been on people. People have had parents and relatives pass. There have been situations where they haven’t been able to see family for extended periods of time.” And the added pressure of adjusting to working from home, especially for parents whose kids were sent home from schools or daycare, has had a lasting impact.

He says Armstrong offers a variety of resources for employees seeking help or guidance, be it flexible scheduling or mental health resources. He adds, “We’re not that big, but there are a number of us that have been around a long time. We’ve known each other for years. So we reach out and make sure the new people are supported. I think it’s just important to maintain flexibility and continue to provide those resources and not take the mindset that, ‘The office is open, everything’s back to normal, we stop caring about people, and all these issues will go away,’ because they aren’t going away.”

He says that, despite the challenges, employees seem ready to return to the office, “I think they’re excited about it. Given what’s happening in the real world-restaurants opening up, store capacity limits being lifted-they’re looking forward to it. If nothing else, they just want to see people, to come into work and catch up with people. But we’ll see. I would imagine initially, when the buildings open up, we’ll get a flood of people coming in. We just have to be careful and monitor that, and we’ll get to what ‘normal’ is. But I would say the biggest driver is people missing one another.”

As flooring companies rethink their back-to-work plans, it’s important to note that their most vital employees never worked from home; factory parking lots remained full even as office workers packed up for home. It’s a stark divide between white-collar and blue-collar workforces.

Despite the challenges of the past year, factory workers continued business as usual and even helped produce vital supplies like face masks and protective gear for frontline first responders and health care workers battling the pandemic.

In some regions, many of the plant workers represent communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, including Northwest Georgia, which is home to a large and ever-growing Spanish-speaking population. As a result, several manufacturers reported disruptions after outbreaks of Covid-19 occurred.

Some of those same plants later stepped in to help vaccinate employees and local community members.

Copyright 2021 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Armstrong Flooring, Shaw Industries Group, Inc., RD Weis, The Dixie Group, Interface, Engineered Floors, LLC