Back to Work
Do we want to return to ‘normal’?
How’s work been for you these past couple of years? Many of us found ourselves showing up to work in our makeshift home offices in our pajamas, while others who were reporting to work in person were suddenly considered “essential,” or even being applauded (literally!) as heroes. Some of us yearned for our old work lives, along with the rest of pre-pandemic normalcy. But as time wore on, a new realization dawned: While the pandemic was a catastrophe, leaving our old work lives behind … wasn’t.
More than two and a half years later, we’re not yet back to what we once called normal, but we’re inching closer to whatever is taking its place. We spoke to four intrepid UMass alumni to get their takes on how our work lives have really changed—and how some of those changes may also be opportunities.
Steve Scully ’11PhD
Founder, Thaddeus Medical Systems
Thaddeus Medical Systems is the creator of the iQ-ler: an innovative cold-chain system that allows people to easily and safely transport, store, and dispense temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals—including vaccines—using a portable, battery-powered freezer. Prior to founding Thaddeus Medical Systems, Scully was an NIH fellow at the Mayo Clinic.
Kamaal Jarrett ’06
Founder, Hillside Harvest
Hillside Harvest is a Caribbean American sauce and condiment company based in Boston. Since its launch in January 2019, Hillside Harvest has been sold in more than 200 retail locations throughout New England.
Natascha F. Saunders ’01
Associate Director for the Office of Career Advancement at Harvard Kennedy School of Government
Saunders is a certified career coach, consultant, speaker, faculty member, and entrepreneur. As a dual-career and first-generation professional, she is currently the associate director and career coach at Harvard Kennedy School and CEO of The Youth Career Coach, Inc.
Andy Hunter ’94
Founder and CEO of Bookshop.org
Bookshop.org enables local independent bookstores to compete with the online juggernaut of Amazon. All purchases on Bookshop.org support the local bookstore of your choosing.
Umm, what just happened?
Online commerce took off.
I think that genie’s out of the bottle
“There’s a certain energy that comes with being in person,” agrees Hunter. But he doesn’t think in-person office work will ever come back in quite the same way. “I had plenty of office jobs in my life, and was once very skeptical of the idea that we could go fully remote and everyone would be productive. But when we were forced into that, it turned out fine. I think that genie’s out of the bottle. People will try to put it back in—the commercial real estate market is going to do everything they can to get companies to require employees to come back to the office. But I don’t think that will happen because productivity and profits have not declined in these last two years.”
Who has the leverage now, the worker or the boss?
Jarrett thinks it’s the worker. “I am looking to hire, and it’s become more competitive, even at the internship level,” he says. “We’re not able to necessarily provide huge salaries or benefits, so I have to think about how to provide a package that entices someone to join us long term. People have options, which is great.”
Saunders agrees—but only to a point. “People want their work to be meaningful, and also want to balance it with family. I think that’s a direct result of the trauma of the pandemic—people are thinking about what really matters,” she says. “So many people will say the person who is looking for work has the negotiation power, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. But they’ll still only make the offer to one person, and there may be 25, 50, 100 people going for that same job.”
“No one really knows what the future of work will be,” Hunter points out. “But employees have a lot more freedom now and are more aware of their value and their ability to shop around, so companies are going to have to step up to retain their employees. Ultimately, that has to be a good thing for anyone more on the side of people than corporations.”
In some ways, there’s no going back. And maybe that’s okay.
Few people miss their long commutes to work. But the shift in where and how we work, learn, and connect over the last few years has shone a new light on different ways of being in the world. “I have a diagnosed learning disability,” says Saunders, “and I have not always been comfortable in certain spaces.” Working from home, just like schooling from home, allows certain types of people to bloom. “This has opened up the dialogue around diversity. People need to think about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and now we’re rolling these conversations into everybody’s job descriptions. Whether they want to or not, everyone’s talking about it.”
Another societal shift has been a refocus on local commerce—during the height of the pandemic, many consumers went out of their way to support neighborhood shops. Hunter says, “From a very self-interested perspective, I hope that kind of conscious consumption does not go away—that people still understand the value of investing in their communities, even if we go back to ‘normal.’” He adds, “I hope all the conscious consumption and socially conscious consumer activism that got a boost in the pandemic continues and builds and gets stronger from here.”