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Office workplace relationships weakened by COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the office workplace permanently, according to Gartner. Employee relationships are weaker, turnover is higher, and automation may accelerate.

Higher job turnover may be a permanent legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice.

That new trend is likely to increase demand for improved recruiting tools and possibly reduce investments in office workplace training, as an uptick in turnover may affect its ROI.

In this Q&A, Kropp outlines Gartner's predictions, including the potential permanency of higher employee churn, for the post-pandemic office workplace.

How would you summarize the lasting effects of the pandemic on the office workplace?

Brian Kropp: There will be several lasting implications from it -- some positive, some negative. We've realized that the people who work for us are not just workers, they're human beings, and we need to treat them like human beings. That has implications for how we think about employee benefits. Second, we're moving into a world with much weaker relationships amongst our employees, with our colleagues. We spend less time with them. It's easier to quit. We've realized that our personal lives, communities, families and hobbies are really important to us. Even though we're going to treat each other more like humans, we're less connected to each other. One of the realities of these weaker connections, in a hybrid world, is dramatically more turnover.

Even though we're going to treat each other more like humans, we're less connected to each other.
Brian KroppChief of research, Gartner HR practice

Are you saying that the high number of quits reported last year will become the norm?

Kropp: The historical [pre-pandemic] turnover rate for white-collar workers is about 15% to 17% annually. We're going to be in an environment where that number is going to go up to 22% to 25%.

How will employers respond if employees feel less connected to the office workplace and are more likely to switch jobs? Will they, for instance, turn to automation and contingent labor?

Kropp: They're going to adopt automation for places with high turnover and where work can be done remotely, like call centers. So imagine a bigger push to even more self-service improvements in chatbots. The second thing is that employers will identify the core parts of their business and the most critical roles, and over-invest in them from a compensation, engagement and culture-building perspective to drive retention. They will also identify other less mission-critical roles, and either outsource those or change the model associated with them to more contingent labor.

Apart from raising salaries to keep employees, is HR spending more on recognition software, tools that monitor engagement and training?

Brian Kropp, chief of research, Gartner HR practiceBrian Kropp

Kropp: They will spend more money on recruiting because of churn, but they may or may not spend more money on training. We can use training and development resources for retention. But then there's another aspect because of turnover. If someone's going to be working here for four or five years, when they used to stay for six or seven years, then my ROI on that training investment is reduced. Given that the rate of return is less, I should do less of it because my payback period is not seven years; it's four years.

What will employers want from HR recruiting tools?

Kropp: They will be interested in two things. The first is what can be done with recruiting tools to accelerate the recruiting process. The second thing is new recruiting solutions that give them an ongoing sense of the labor market. How do you keep a set of qualified candidates warm on an ongoing basis when you're not exactly sure when you'll need them?

Are employers upset, relieved or indifferent that the Supreme Court overturned President Biden's federal vaccine mandate?

Kropp: Generally speaking, employers are upset. They know with certainty that a fully vaccinated workforce is in many ways a better workforce because you have less absenteeism and your long-term healthcare costs are less. But they never wanted the responsibility of having to enforce a fully vaccinated workforce. So they had this wonderful opportunity to get the benefits of [vaccinated workers] without having to deal with the responsibility of it. They now have to take on the responsibility of saying, 'We want a fully vaccinated workforce,' and explain why. That is hard for them.

This bar graph looks at Omicron's impact on worksites.
Omicron's effect on worksites

What do you think the office workplace will look like by summer?

Kropp: By the time we get to summer, we will have a small trickle of people coming into the office on an on-again, off-again basis. But for knowledge workers, the muscle has been built strongly around how to work from home. While there's some appetite for some people to get back into the office from a social perspective, that's a relatively small group. And so it will be a slow trickle to the office. But there's not going to be a mad dash back to the office, even by the time we get to June.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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