The pandemic did a lot of things to throw our lives into disarray, from the pain and suffering of COVID-19 killing family and friends, crippling our economy, impacting our mental health, or adjusting to a new work-life where your office is your home. Experts, business owners, and regular people are still trying to navigate what makes work, work.

Experts we talked to argue that white-collar work has never seen such a massive transformation in such a short period of time. Now, many are asking, how can we just go back to the way things were?

We talked to both sides of the coin for perspective on what the future of work may or may not look like. There is the traditional office job working 9-to-5, totally remote work, hybrid, shift-work, digital nomads, jobs to help people in need through local non-profits, and everything in-between.

THE TRADITIONAL OFFICE

For the first time since March 2020, ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska found himself in a strange but familiar world. Attending an in-person meeting at an office, not via Zoom.

It wasn’t the ABC Action News newsroom; field reporters don’t typically need to work in an office, so they are the last wave to return. Byron Crowell, Founder of Solution Publishing, agreed to let us see how he plans to build a new culture around a traditional workplace for his new tech startup.

"We want butts in seats,” Crowell told Paluska. “We are building a startup culture from scratch, so it’s important to us to have people who are together and can share things at a moment's notice. We can immediately interact with each other and make changes.”

The meeting started at 9 a.m. and lasted about 35 minutes. It was a Friday, so employees were dressed in business casual. However, if they hit their goals for the week, they can wear sports jerseys. If they miss them, time to bust out the tie.

The day we attended was neutral for the cameras.

The mood was light, fun, and at times serious. Crowell relocated his family from Silicon Valley back to Tampa to start a successful, profitable business.

Crowell, a Tampa native, has one business partner that he’s known since they were kids. He is the only one working out of state totally remote. You could see a slight disconnect in interactions and focus for the remote worker.

Watching the entire team sit at a table laughing and running through the meeting showed some of the challenges of the dreaded video conference. The team played a TikTok video to promote job openings. The entire team collaborated and got the 26-second video shot and posted in no time. And, for Crowell, that sums it all up.

“That’s the point we don’t need meetings cause we are right here; just walk to each other’s desk and do things cause we don’t have to schedule,” Crowell said. “If you are building a team nowhere certainly from scratch and cohesion and interaction and energy is important, then it gets very hard to do that remotely. We want people in the office being part of the team cause we think it’s a competitive advantage.”

WORK FROM HOME, HYBRID MODEL

For decades before the pandemic, some companies have toyed with the idea of shifting to a hybrid work week, or for some employees, a totally remote system. Fear, the status quo, lack of backing by management, whatever the reason, it never caught on. Then we all know what happened in March 2020.

“We’ve been pushing the remote work rock uphill for over 17-years, helping organizations develop flexible and remote work strategies,” Kate Lister, the President of Global Workplace Analytics, said. “This is the opportunity for change. We are not going back to the way we were. The office isn’t going to go away, but it’s going to be different.”

Lister said their research shows working from home might force you to work more hours. But, Lister believes the data trends to that being positive.

“The employee can save 11 days they would’ve otherwise spent playing in traffic,” Lister said. “You are probably working longer hours, but on the other hand, all of the research shows that it actually improves work-life balance. People find they are more productive at home. They are interrupted less 35 minutes less per day, and out of all of those distractions, they are less stressed.”

A December 2020 study by the Pew Research Center shows 54% of Americans would like to continue working from home after the pandemic ends.

“The genie is out of the bottle for people they’ve enjoyed the opportunity of working from home,” Lister said. “We also have a greater sense of autonomy without the boss looking over our shoulder. It’s up to us to get our work done, and we’ve known for decades that’s how people are best managed. That’s what motivates us to have the choice to work as we like and how we like.”

Lister likes the hybrid model. A few days in the office, a few days at home. Distinguished USF Professor Dr. Tammy Allen also thinks a hybrid workweek is the best.

“Now the idea of going back to work that creates a new change and the cause for an additional adjustment period,” Allen said.

She believes the research shows the psychological impacts of COVID-19 on workers were immense and still is. The pandemic changed how we do things in the blink of an eye, but should we wiggle our noses and go back to office life pre-pandemic? Allen says that way of thinking will be detrimental to companies in the end.

"What they are risking is they are going to lose their talent pool, and I’m already hearing stories of workers saying they will quit if they have to return to a Monday through Friday 9-to-5 work situation,” Allen said.

DIGITAL NOMADS

Then there are the digital nomads. Most of the work is 100% remote, and their office can change as often as they like. More and more websites are capitalizing on the nomadic way of life.

“I am a digital nomad,” Steve Naito said.

Naito is the CEO of Anyplace, a company he founded in 2015. It's a website specific to finding people cool places to work in cities with a rich lifestyle and cultural experience. It is a cross between Airbnb and VRBO only for workers. The concept has taken off over the past year of the pandemic.

“We’ve seen more listings in places like Tampa,” Naito said.

Naito always wanted to travel the world and visit multiple cities. As the CEO of a company that does that, he is living his dream. Recently he spent time in Miami and New York City and is currently back at his home base San Francisco. Naito said the pandemic created more interest in the digital nomad life because the pandemic normalized it.

“Many people have become digital nomads without having to quit their jobs,” Naito said. "But, before the pandemic, to become a digital nomad, you had to quit your job and start your own business. Remote work is becoming the norm. I started this lifestyle before the pandemic. I believed the future of work is remote, and now do the pandemic everyone understands this is the future.”

The company recently launched a new venture Anyplace Select. It takes the idea of working at a small desk in an apartment or hotel and blows it out of the water.

"High-speed Internet, standing desk, monitor, webcam, green screen, etc., so that our customers will be able to work from anywhere without stress,” Naito said. "I can be more productive changing my location while working.”

LACK OF WORKERS

With so many types of jobs available, the pandemic also created a fallout of a different kind. Companies that can’t find workers.

"It’s been incredibly awkward for us,” Gary Crayton, the CEO of Pool Troopers said. "We haven’t been able to fill our routes to take care of our existing clients, so we are not able to take on new clients during that time frame.”

Crayton said they are down so many pool cleaning technicians that they are using money normally reserved for their marketing budget for an all-out blitz to buy advertising to recruit new employees. Crayton says they are now offering $500 sign-on bonuses. In addition, they offer medical and 401K, and an hourly wage of $15 per hour.

“It is a career,” Crayton said. “Something, a lot of people, think is a transitory job. But, if you like it, if you enjoy working outside with your hands and making others people’s property look incredibly beautiful, it’s really fun."

Currently, there are more than 30 openings. But, according to numbers provided by the company, about 50% of applicants are no-shows after going through the initial screening.

“We get applications, and then people won’t show up for the interviews that you set up, or they won’t even answer your call back when you call them back after they’ve applied online,” Crayton said. “We’ve heard that they have to go to a certain number of interviews per week to qualify for unemployment, and that’s just really frustrating to have that happen. You spend a lot of time trying to recruit people, money effort everyone’s time, and then they don’t even show up it’s awkward and a little bit painful.”

We reached out to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. They told us employers could report an individual that failed to attend a scheduled job interview to the Reemployment Assistance Help Center.

That doesn’t help Crayton get applicants in seats.

“We want to service our clients. We want to be there for them. We want to be backyard heroes, and it’s incredibly awkward for us when we can’t live up to that,” Crayton said.

SHIFT-WORK AT A NON-PROFIT

Some jobs require you to leave the house. Kris Barra isn’t a police officer, firefighter, nurse, doctor, or restaurant worker. But, she has just as much interaction or more with the public working for Feeding Tampa Bay. Barra’s work journey to get there hasn’t been easy.

“I’ve been homeless twice in my lifetime,” Barra said. “So, I understand the concept of food security on a different level, and I’ve seen the same people for 15-months, and some of them aren’t in a better place yet.”

As fate would have it, Barra stumbled into her current position as Distribution Coordinator for the non-profit’s mega pantries. While picking up food for her neighbors during lockdowns she realized she needed help too.

“I was a hairstylist and a personal trainer and lost both instantly,” Barra said.

When she stopped for food, she got out of her car and found something else.

“I looked at my husband and said, ‘I have to do this for a living,' and he was like ‘what do you mean?’ I said, 'I lost both my jobs. What am I supposed to do? Let me see if they have a job open.’”

On May 22, 2020, she started full-time. The most current numbers from Feeding Tampa Bay show they’ve hired 79 people furloughed during the pandemic. Barra is one of them and is grateful for her next chapter in life.

“This may be the last company I ever work for, meaning I don’t see myself going anywhere. There are so many opportunities, so many different capacities inside FTB to be able to branch out,” Barra said. "Work means I get the opportunity to make someone else’s day better.”

“Could you ever go back to the work-life you had before?” Paluska asked.

"No, this is it,” Barra said with a smile. "If I could work in my pajamas, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But, feeding people and knowing they are being taken care of, I can’t pass that up. It’s my heart.”

Barra’s story is what a lot of us are searching for. A job or career that we love. She is a model of what we all strive for.

So, maybe the question about how we see work in the future is simple. Find something you really love. Of course, it is easier said than done. But, if working from home is what you like, find a job that nurtures that.

If you love going to the office, plenty of companies like Solution Publishing wants to build a successful culture. For the young at heart or more adventurous Anyplace could offer digital nomads a new place to call home.