The new office normal

Mayor Cameron Smyth and city manager Ken Striplin, top right, had a video conference with mayors and city managers from the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale on Thursday, May 21, 2020. Courtesy of the city of Santa Clarita

As more and more restrictions are eased, it’s now time for businesses to start thinking about what “the new normal” will look like in the workplace.

“As we await more specific guidelines from the governor, L.A. County and the city, businesses are adapting to the new normal of a virtual workplace,” Ivan Volschenk, president of the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce, said via email. “This is a constantly evolving situation and everyone has to learn to adapt quickly.”

Brian Koegle, a partner at Poole Shaffery & Koegle LLP, believes the pandemic has caused a lot of businesses to look at their processes and re-evaluate business models. 

“‘Business as usual’ is not an option,” he said. “The Santa Clarita Valley business community is very unique in many, many ways. We are geographically unique, we are demographically unique and we are from a diversity of business practices quite unique, as well, so I think that there’s no, ‘One size fits all.’”

The city of Santa Clarita’s management team hosts a Zoom meeting. Courtesy

“Essential businesses” that largely remained operational through the shutdown have created early protocols for operations of those deemed “nonessential” by government officials and expected to be reopened in the coming weeks.

“What we know from the industrial space is there are changes in the configuration of workplaces, and that those are going to become as permanent as anything is right now at least for the foreseeable future,” said Holly Schroeder, president and CEO of the SCV Economic Development Corp.

These changes include physical separations, spreading workers out and shift changes among others, she added. “All of those types of adjustments are going to become very routine.” 

As city facilities begin to reopen, the city of Santa Clarita has begun to implement some of these same safety precautions, including installing signage to encourage social distancing, plexiglass partitions and hand sanitizing stations, as well as offering complimentary face coverings and appointments to decrease crowding and queuing, according to city Communications Manager Carrie Lujan.

When it comes to the office environment, Schroeder said while there are still many unknowns, as most are currently operating an entirely remote workforce, those physical separations may mean only bringing back some of the workforce at first.

The city of Santa Clarita has added plexiglass shields at City Hall to protect employees and residents. Courtesy

“Imagine you have about 25 people that are in a communal area, you might bring back a third of those people, and it might be a different third that come back on any given day so that you do get a mix in interaction between your team, but you’re still able to maintain some social distancing,” she said. 

And because businesses are learning that many of their tasks and requirements can be done remotely, Koegle expects to see more of a hybrid work environment when things return.

“I think the hybrid is going to include more work from home, more flexible hours or work days that people are actually going into a physical office,” he said. “This is going to require very clear and concise policies.” 

Organizations such as the Valley Industry Association have already begun implementing this new way of doing business, utilizing conferencing software as opposed to in-person meetings, according to Kathy Norris, president and CEO.

“Going forward, even if we are able to open up completely, it is unlikely people will feel comfortable enough initially to return to the former way of doing business,” Norris said. “Although impossible to predict, we anticipate it will likely be a combination of smaller meetings and larger Zoom conferences for the foreseeable future until folks feel comfortable with face to face activities.”

Top to bottom: Laina McFerren, co-founder of Wolf Creek Restaurant & Brewery, John Musella, spokesman for the SCV Chamber of Commerce, Ana Fonseca, president and CEO at Logix Federal Credit Union, Holly Schroeder, president and CEO of the SCV Economic Development Corp., and David Rendall, owner of Re/Max of Santa Clarita, host Scaling Up: Back 2 Business webinar series on May 8, 2020. Courtesy

Volschenk believes these virtual meetings can not only allow for safety compliance, but also allow for higher productivity. “Instead of getting in your car and driving to a meeting, you can work up to the meeting and continue working directly after. This benefits everyone.”

At the city, Lujan says some employees are going to continue teleworking to limit the amount of staff at any one location. 

“This time has allowed us to take a look at how we can best continue to serve our community, while working remotely,” she added. “We will continue to utilize these efficiencies as the social distancing orders continue to relax.” 

While Schroeder believes technology has proven its effectiveness through the pandemic, there’s still a decent amount of commentary that there’s something about working remotely that’s a little more tiring.

In fact, studies have found that video calls require more focus, as we work harder to process non-verbal cues, while delays of even just 1.2 have made people perceive responders as less friendly or focused.

“There’s just a little bit of cognitive dissonance that happens because it’s not how your brain processes (conversations) normally,” Schroeder said. “I think we will see it as a permanent part of the mix for the long term, but I think people are starved for normal, casual interactions … but when we have confidence coming back to those safely really remains to be seen.” 

The city of Santa Clarita has added hand sanitizer stations and signage to City Hall to remind residents to abide by public health guidelines. Courtesy

Koegle agreed, adding, “I am modestly concerned that we lose the personal aspect of human relationships that make a workplace or a culture of a workplace important.”

“There’s a whole separate etiquette for video conferencing that we kind of lose the camaraderie and the collaboration because we’re only allowed to have one person talking at a time, and it becomes a real sensitive issue,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to hinder growth or creativity because we’ll learn to work within the new construct, but it’s certainly something that is going to require people to shift the way that they’ve been doing.”

That being said, both Koegle and Schroeder believe it’s an iterative process and will certainly take some trial and error. 

“It’s been a learning curve every day for everybody,” Schroeder said, adding that she remains optimistic, as this is an area where both businesses and employees are aligned. “There is great incentive for businesses and employees to be really diligent and think through what’s going to really work so that everybody can be safe.”

Even so, Koegle suggests businesses begin thinking ahead now and pay attention to the publications from health agencies that can provide guidance as they prepare to open up.

“Be prepared because if we don’t have the policies in place, and if we don’t have the protocols ready to go, you’re going to be a step behind your competitors,” he said.

The city of Santa Clarita has added plexiglass shields at City Hall to protect employees and residents. Courtesy

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