The Workplace Moving Forward


How the Pandemic Changed the Workplace



By John Cable, Director

Project Management Center for Excellence
A. James Clark School of Engineering
University of Maryland

College Park, Maryland, USA

In our 2021 Virtual Project Management Symposium, we continued the idea that one of our featured speakers would address issues around the workplace. In 2019, Stephen Shields, a Gallup Senior Consultant, lead an energizing breakout session on “Thriving Strengths-based Leaders” so, for 2021, we invited him as a featured speaker to discuss “The Workplace Moving Forward: How has the Pandemic Changed the Workplace?”

When millions of Americans suddenly began working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, managers acquired trial-by-fire experience with at-home work policies. As we move forward in a post-pandemic workplace, some of those experiences are useful, others are best left behind. Managing a team in person is challenging enough but moving all operations to virtual platforms has had significant and swift effects on workplace culture.

Shields said that unemployment levels rose to almost twice what they were pre-pandemic, and that within just three weeks between mid-March to April 2020, the percentage of American employees working from home doubled, from 31% to 62%. By February of 2021, that number dipped only slightly to 58%, representing employees who are still working remotely.

The rapidity of these changes posed a particular problem. While workplace culture does not always change rapidly, a crisis does offer the opportunity for convulsive change that would otherwise take much longer. Drastic adjustments generally occur much more slowly and over much longer periods of time.

Starting March 2020, in response to the mandates for shutdowns, organizations globally had to abandon their basic work models, sometimes within just a few days. Surveys reported that about half the workforce did not feel prepared to work remotely. They felt forced to continue working while essentially improvising with an unprecedented set of circumstances.

A survey, taken from March to September 2020, randomly sampled over 5,000 full-and part-time employees.  During this time, employee engagement began at 37%, rose to 40%, and then fell again to 36%. Employee active disengagement started at 15%, then fell and remained mostly steady at 13%.  Shields said the Gallup poll’s results reflected employee engagement was all over the place.

Employee engagement is important because it is a commitment by an employee to fully embrace the goals of the company.  Employee engagement is a critical factor in their happiness and productivity. Conversely, employee active disengagement means that employees are very dissatisfied with their job and will perform poorly unless they are just calling out sick or not working at all. They could be angry with their work environment, their co-workers, their leadership, or perhaps all three.

For additional context about the emotional dynamics that managers must address, Shields referenced the research of Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking Fast and Slow[1],” which explores how we make decisions, which offers a backdrop to employee engagement survey results. Kahneman revealed that most of our decisions are emotional.  As a consequence, culture matters.  Similarly, engagement matters.  All employees fall somewhere on an emotional spectrum, starting with passionately engaged, bored, or actively disengaged.

The percentage of “engaged” and “actively disengaged” employees changed more drastically during the pandemic than during the Iraq War or during the attacks of September 11, 2001. The global recession, the preponderance of people working from home, and the cataclysm that precipitated it created more variability in terms of employee engagement than has been seen in recent times. Those managers who understand the implications of Kahneman’s research appear to have been able to manage their teams with the best outcomes.


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How to cite this article: Cable, J. (2021). The Workplace Moving Forward: How the Pandemic Changed the Workplace; Commentary, PM World Journal, Vol. X, Issue IX, September. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/pmwj109-Sep2021-Cable-Shields-the-workplace-moving-forward.pdf

About the Author

John Cable

Director, Project Management Center for Excellence
University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA


 John Cable is Director of the Project Management Center for Excellence in the A.James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland, where he is also a professor and teacher of several graduate courses in project management. His program at the University of Maryland offers masters and PhD level programs focused on project management. With more than 1,300 seats filled annually with students from many countries, including more than 40 PhD students, the program is the largest graduate program in project management at a major university in the United States.

John Cable served in the newly formed U.S. Department of Energy in 1980, where he was involved with developing energy standards for buildings, methods for measuring energy consumption, and managing primary research in energy conservation.  As an architect and builder, Mr. Cable founded and led John Cable Associates in 1984, a design build firm. In 1999 he was recruited by the University of Maryland’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering to create and manage a graduate program in project management. In his role as founder and director of the Project Management Center for Excellence at Maryland, the program has grown to offer an undergraduate minor, master’s degrees, and a doctoral program. Information about the Project Management Center for Project Management at the University of Maryland can be found at www.pm.umd.edu.

In 2002, PMI formed the Global Accreditation Center for Project Management Educational Programs (GAC).  Mr. Cable was appointed to that inaugural board where he served as vice chair.  In 2006, he was elected as chairman, a role he held through 2012.  As Chair of the PMI GAC, John led the accreditation of 86 project management educational programs at 40 institutions in 15 countries in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and the Asia Pacific Region. John was awarded PMI’s 2012 Distinguished Contribution Award for his leadership at the GAC.  He can be contacted at jcable@umd.edu.

To view other works by John Cable, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at https://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/john-cable/

[1] Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman published in 2011 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux ISBN 978-0374275631



  1. […] This article appeared in PM World Journal, Vol. X, Issue VIII, September 2021. […]