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Back to Work
Smiling worker wearing a hair net, standing next to a large metal bin.

Back to Work

Do we want to return to ‘normal’?

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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.

The entrepreneurs

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 enables local independent bookstores to compete with the online juggernaut of Amazon. All purchases on support the local bookstore of your choosing.

Umm, what just happened?

Online commerce took off.

stack of books

Andy Hunter ’94 felt the economic impact of the pandemic early. In the entire month of February 2020, had sold $50,000 worth of books. But on a single day in mid-March, the site sold $60,000—and then the next day, it sold $150,000. At the high point in June 2020, it sold $900,000 in a single day. “It was really a kind of white-knuckle experience, and there was very little sleep involved. The tough part is that all of this was happening while my kids were doing remote learning and we were in a 450-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn,” says Hunter. “But it felt great to be able to do something positive in a time of so much suffering and so much concern for the future.” The positive? Well, for one thing, Hunter’s business was helping people get their books during a time when there was not much to do but read. But the mission of, which had only launched earlier that year, was always to support local bookstores, and it was doing just that. “I am a writer and a reader, and in the past I’ve been a publisher. I believe that having a healthy ecosystem around books, reading, and writers is extremely important for creativity and human development, and I was worried about what would happen if one very profit-driven company controlled the entire book market,” Hunter says.

But online commerce doesn’t translate across all fields. Steve Scully ’11PhD says, “For some research applications or clinically based positions, you have to be in a physical workplace—in the field or the lab. I don’t think that will change soon.” His product is designed to correct issues with how samples and clinical specimens are stored and transported, and that’s not something that lends itself to virtual testing. The system allows users to remotely track temperature zones, barometric pressure, humidity, and light, among other variables, keeping products safe and ready to use—providing obvious benefits during a worldwide pandemic. That said, for startups like his—which is essentially a health care tech crossover—the shift to online work is a boon. “In some places, like Rochester, Minnesota, it can be hard to find the right people. Working remotely expands opportunities to find the right people and the right fit.”

Of course, at least one industry remained brick-and-mortar throughout: grocery stores. And that created opportunities for Kamaal Jarrett ’06. “Because there was a run on grocery stores, there were more openings for local small businesses to fill the gaps,” he says. “Suddenly buyers in larger organizations like Whole Foods and Stop & Shop gave us the time of day—they tasted our product and liked it, and knew we were in a position to get things moving. We were tremendously lucky we were small enough to limit our exposure to stay flexible.”

Remote work ruled—for better or worse.

Desk items including a plant and note pad.

“My own office has gone hybrid,” Natascha F. Saunders ’01 says, “but we’re not a virtual institution. We primarily do on-campus education. So we’ve had lots of conversations around work-life balance.” What works? “For me, technology is what I want to carry forward. I want to keep Microsoft Teams and Zoom!” she laughs. “Maybe the technology bugs you, but the accessibility is what makes it work, and it benefits my ability to serve students wherever they are.”

But Jarrett is less pleased with the switch. “We need a hiatus from Zoom,” he insists. “It’s so weird—we’ve had great contracts in the past year or two, but they’ve all been done via video conference. I haven’t been to any headquarters! This is the first season where trade shows are returning and we’re getting back to face-to-face interactions, and I’m really looking forward to it.”

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.”

What’s next?

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.”

Silver linings abound.

first aid kit and syringes.

The start of the pandemic was eerie timing for Scully, who launched a business focusing on vaccine transportation in early 2020. That may sound ideal, but it actually wasn’t, since his product hadn’t had a chance to prove itself. “We were hoping to ride the wave, if you will, for all the vaccines that got deployed and distributed,” he says, “but our device is expensive, and Styrofoam and ice are super cheap. There are still a lot of areas where it will be useful, and we’re still pursuing that.” The pandemic isn’t going away, and neither will Scully’s technology. “More attention being brought to the delivery of medicines is a good thing,” he says, “not just for our company, but in general.”

Jarrett sees the bigger picture. After all, the pandemic didn’t just hit us in the workplace. It hit all of us at home, too. “I feel like we’ve learned to appreciate our family members, our friends, our local community, in such a more authentic and meaningful way,” he says. “We were forced to do an inventory of our lives and loved ones, and a lot of us realized we weren’t spending enough time with those people.” (And if that time involves backyard barbecues, well, Jarrett recommends his Jamaican Jerk marinades and sauces. “My favorite is the Original Hot Pepper.”)

That renewed appreciation can extend to our coworkers. Saunders points out that the adversity of the pandemic brought her team closer together in different ways. “We were close as a department, but now we’re even closer as individuals,” Saunders says. “People have made accommodations for one another. There’s been a lot of sharing—not just of work, but of what’s going on in our lives.” Those conversations include a lot of questions that many of us didn’t think to ask a couple of years ago. “For example, Am I happy with the work I’m doing? Do I enjoy the people I’m working with?” Saunders says. “What am I learning? How am I growing? All of these questions are coming up.”

The answers today may not look the same a few more years down the line. “I know a little about pivoting,” Saunders says. “I took a windy road at UMass—I couldn’t pick a major.” Saunders took advantage of the BDIC program then (Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration), combining three areas she loved into one major. Today, as founder and CEO of The Youth Career Coach Inc., she is focused on workforce development, offering workshops, programming, seminars, and lessons that help students create their own paths. The post-pandemic world may offer new opportunities along with the challenges, if folks are willing to shift gears.

“I’d like to follow up this conversation in about five years,” Saunders says. “There’s an emotional component to these questions. A couple of years in, I can imagine someone saying, Whoa, I need to pivot again. And that’s okay! People change.” Times do, too.

The UMass Center for Employment Equity offers tools and resources for managers and business owners.