HR in a COVID-19 world - the myth of the ‘great place to work’

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer July 19, 2020
Work From Home is shining a light on how firms have ignored previous pioneers in remote work. Did those firms really deserve those ‘great place’ to work awards if they didn’t support remote workers well or equitably pre-pandemic?


I’ve done consulting work for some great CHROs but sometimes I encounter an HR executive that is more focused on checking the right boxes to be classified as a great employer rather than ensuring they are delivering on the promise itself. It’s that classic game of doing the things that look like you’re doing the work versus actually doing the work itself.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, I encountered many remote workers who are not happy that all of the cool perks their firm offers are only available to those people who work at their larger offices and/or headquarters. Those facilities have in-house gyms, dry cleaning, health care, a cafeteria, shoe shine stand, day care, oil changes, etc. Some even offer curbside food trucks and gourmet chefs. And, it doesn’t stop there. In the offices and cubicles of the headquarters’ workers are special ergonomic chairs, computing gear, big screen monitors/televisions, standing desks, etc.

I confronted one CHRO about their double standard and it was not a good meeting. I pointed out that she had three classes of employees:

  • Headquarters and large office employees
  • Employees at small offices (often <20 employees)
  • Remote workers

The vast majority of perks/benefits she loved to impress job prospects and awards organizations with were only available to those in their three largest offices. What was she doing for the other groups? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Not to let go of a good point prematurely, I asked when she last visited these small offices. No surprise here: never.

This HR executive was a real piece of work. When she flew (first class of course) she never tried to get an upgrade for others in her firm that were on the same flight. She had never had a conversation with any of her remote workers/service providers. Her time was, in her words, dedicated to the CEO and COO.

This kind of CHRO is all about building Potemkin Villages. She builds facades of what a great place to work might be, but doesn’t actually finish the job. She really isn’t interested in improving the work life of employees as much as she is about getting an award she can put on her resume. Trust me, she’s already thinking of her next gig.

The transition from remote work to WFH

The current pandemic is exposing these inequities all over the place. Now, with many companies having many, if not most, employees working from home (WFH), employees are seeing how chintzy their firm has been with remote workers. A recent TrustRadius survey showed that 41% of employees got no help from their employer when asked to work from home.

The old work world was a bifurcated and discriminatory one with the best perks going to those at big offices with few to no perks at other locations. That environment triggered resentment as memos and awards extolled what a great place the company was to work at but only if you were part of the elite who worked in a few key locations.

Remote work/WFH was never was a focus area in most firms. Yes, some firms, like consultancies, were ahead of the game but in many organizations, WFH people didn’t count. And WFH employees were never a factor when company was vying for a great place to work award. Remote workers were always challenged to:

  • Find budget for basic office supplies like printer paper, ink cartridges, etc.
  • Get approval for expensing an office chair, printer, phone headset, etc.
  • Get noticed especially in firms that viewed remote workers as people who chose to leave their career aspirations behind to work at home
  • Etc.

Employers weren’t too trusting on the whole remote work idea either. Some wanted to install spyware to monitor an employee’s activity. These requests were sometimes laughable as employers wanted to install this on an employee’s own personal computer as their own employer wouldn’t buy them a company-laptop.

Several studies are already showing that WFH initiatives are not producing major productivity losses. In fact, productivity seems to be better in some WFH settings. (Note: some differences are present in some country locations or job level analyses.)

Remote work was often treated as:

  • A one-off kind of thing that might be useful if a key employee was injured, pregnant or otherwise unable to come to the office
  • Something only the most trusted employees could be permitted to do
  • Something that could only be permitted on some pre-determined times (e.g., Friday’s only)
  • Something that had major benefits to the employer (e.g., have a worker co-located in a key customer’s facilities)
  • An exception that required lots of review and approvals

When COVID-19 hit, companies tried to emulate some of their remote working practices (such as they were) and develop net-new responses in almost real-time. What happened was that:

  • The WFH effort was rushed, inefficient but eventually successful in most cases.
  • Some firms had too few laptops. Even if workers wanted to work remotely, they lacked a computer at home to do so.
  • Some firms had too few remote access (or terminal emulation) licenses. This issue is a problem with sites still using on-premises applications and may go away as laggardly firms finally shift to the cloud.
  • Some workers live in areas with poor or no high-speed internet access (e.g., remote, rural areas).
  • Some workers had to quarantine with their children and provide those children remote learning capabilities.
  • Some workers lacked a dedicated workspace at home.
  • Etc.

And now, companies are seeing the need to budget for net-new outfitting expenses for employees but this time, the needs are often a form factor larger than before as the number of WFH employees dwarfs the previous number of remote workers. These costs include:

  • Additional or upgraded broadband internet access for workers’ homes
  • Office equipment for these WFH locations (e.g., printers, chairs, phones, etc.)
  • Consumable costs (e.g., paper, toner, etc.)
  • Additional application software licenses
  • Additional security software licenses
  • Tracking software licenses
  • Etc.

It’s a big bill; however, business leaders should look at these startup costs as a blessing as the company will, in time, reduce its need for office space. Spending a few hundred dollars/employee to equip employees for WFH is nothing compared to the savings from eliminating tens of thousands of sq. ft. of office space.

Back to best places to work…

So, how does one a evaluate a firm as being a best place to work (in the singular sense) if a large number of workers WFH? Yes, you can try to measure things like engagement, culture, etc. but we’ll need to be looking at these concepts differently going forward.

For instance, how can the term “best place” to work apply to the thousands of workers’ diverse homes, apartments, etc.? My home can seem spacious compared to another worker’s efficiency apartment. Each persons’ home has very different office space, technology infrastructure, etc. Seriously, are award organizations going to send surveys to employees to see which firm jams the most/best stuff into an employee’s home? Will they determine which firms do a better job of minimizing the impact of WFH on an employees’ family? Will they assess how well employers trust their employees when working remotely? I could go on and on re: the credibility of future awards for companies with a large percentage of WFH employees.

While many of these awards are like a popularity contest, they provide jobseekers a peek into how an employer might act towards them. Okay, while that’s subjective and imperfect, it is surely better than nothing. Used in conjunction with review sites (e.g., Glassdoor), jobseekers can be better prepared in their job search. But, in the end, the acid test is often how well a jobseeker can fit in within a specific group of employees and supervisors. It isn’t a company-wide thing that matters the most – it’s often very personal. It’s like they say about politics, all politics are local and so are best place determinations.

I suspect the changes to support WFH are far from finished. There are tons of issues re: the security of customer documents/data and why employees shouldn’t have access to these in their homes. There are performance management, succession planning and other issues to clarify especially if employees will have significantly diminished opportunities to work together in a given location. The companies that figure these thornier aspects of WFH out may turn out to be the best places to work after all.

See also on this topic. 

A grey colored placeholder image