Letting Evidence Guide Decisions About Reopening Offices

Letting Evidence Guide Decisions About Reopening Offices

Nov 09, 2021
Mathematica with office workers

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Mathematica has sought to be a source of timely, relevant, and reliable evidence to guide decisions that affect people’s health and well-being. Our most visible imprint on the pandemic has been partnerships with philanthropy, government agencies, and nonprofits to implement effective tools and strategies that would help with the COVID-19 response. Whether it has been understanding ways to build vaccine confidence or estimating the impact of risk mitigation measures for in-person gatherings in educational settings, we have played a role. What has been less visible is the way that our organization, as a vocal advocate of using evidence in decision making, has endeavored to follow our own advice when it comes to protecting the health and safety of our workers.

It’s easy to say “follow the evidence.” It’s harder in practice when dealing with a relatively new virus and even newer variants, with vital (and sometimes conflicting) information trickling in over time. Sometimes not all of the evidence you would want to make a decision is available, and the stakes are high. While we usually talk about Mathematica’s mission to improve public well-being in the context of our partners and the people they serve, we also need to deliver on that mission when it comes to our own employees. No leader wants to be responsible for causing an employee or their family member to land in the hospital, or worse. After weighing the risks, like many businesses across the U.S., Mathematica transitioned in March 2020 to a fully remote workforce, for what we hoped would be only a matter of weeks. Over 18 months later, we are still wrestling with when and how to bring workers back into the office.

In some respects, we were fortunate to be well prepared for a situation that required most employees to work remotely for an extended period. Even before the pandemic, about a quarter of our staff worked from home full time, so we already had systems and processes in place to allow remote workers to communicate easily with their teams and supervisors, fill out daily timesheets, and share files securely. Although we had to make a few minor adjustments, switching to a fully remote workforce had minimal impact on our ability to keep the company running smoothly.

While much information about the virus was unknown, we did know some of our employees’ thoughts and feelings about being back in the office, through several employee surveys. Based on staff interest and comfort, we implemented a “soft” office opening in July 2021 for staff who were ready to be back in person. Mathematica also had a plan as of early summer to fully reopen our nine offices by September 2021. That plan was informed by our internal surveys and the latest external evidence on transmission at the time. Vaccination rates were rising across the U.S., including in the states where we work. At the same time, the daily trends in new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19 were declining. But the situation changed. With the rise of the Delta variant and a troubling reversal in disease prevalence, we made the difficult decision in late summer to pause our full reopening.

Instead, we implemented a soft opening for only those who were ready to be back in person. Even for those employees, we made changes based on new evidence. We improved ventilation in our offices, encouraged mask wearing indoors, and increased in-office cleaning. Most significantly, we required that all employees be vaccinated unless they secured an exemption for an allowed reason, such as a medical condition.

While many of us feel the absence of our work community—informal catchups over coffee or lunch, the impromptu knock on the door from a colleague, post-work happy hours, trivia nights, and softball games—our top priority is the health and well-being of our staff. We have employees at higher risk of developing health complications from COVID-19 and its viral variants; we also have employees who cannot be vaccinated or whose loved ones cannot be vaccinated. As much as we would like to return to normal, the soft opening with stricter safety protocols is the best current option for our employees, their families, and the communities in which we work and live.

At some point, we expect that the risks posed by the pandemic will subside and we will be able to fully reopen our offices. When we reach that time, our current experience with remote work raises questions about the future of in-person offices. In the past, the onus was on employees to justify why they would work from home. Now, the onus is on the company to justify why employees should come into the office. Before the pandemic, many employers were slow to embrace telework for a variety of reasons, including a fear that their workers might be less productive in a fully remote environment. Because many of our staff were working from home before the pandemic, we already knew that wouldn’t be true in our case, but we’ve now had a natural experiment to reinforce the point. At the same time, as an organization that has always relied on a strong culture and sense of community, we are not oblivious to what might be lost if we relied only on everyone doing their work remotely. All of this suggests we should reassess the value of in-person versus remote work based on new data. We’re closely watching the literature and have engaged an outside expert to help us re-imagine what the Mathematica office of the future should look like.

Just as new evidence is still surfacing about the pandemic’s long-term impacts on people’s health, we're still learning about the impacts of this global experiment in remote work. What exactly work looks like in a post-pandemic world isn’t settled yet. Just because Mathematica can continue its work with everyone outside the office doesn’t mean it should. For example, surveys and media coverage have pointed to burnout as a byproduct of co-locating home and work, with blurred boundaries for the beginning and end of the workday. We’ve heard similar sentiments from some of our own employees. If productivity isn’t lost, but morale is, perhaps companies like Mathematica ought to put a thumb on the scale of in-person work again. But we aren’t making any firm decisions now. When we do, we will rely on information gathered from our employees about what they want, we’ll be watching what they choose to do, and we’ll follow the evidence about how to best serve them. For us, our mission of improving well-being applies to ourselves as much as it does to our partners and clients.

About the Author

Paul Decker

Paul Decker

President and Chief Executive Officer
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