How will the workplace change in a post-COVID-19 world?

The new normal will mean personal and technical changes, thanks to the massive disruption of quarantine we are all enduring.

open office workplace
K2 Space (CC BY 2.0)

The quarantining of large portions of the population and mass shift to working from home is going to bring about disruption to the workplace like never before. Historically, work environment changes have been glacial, but COVID-19 changes are immediate.

Forcing most of the nation into mass self-isolation at home is proving enormously disruptive, for good and for bad. On the plus side, people are shifting to biking around town, leery of using mass transit, while others have rediscovered the joy of cooking as their favorite restaurants are all closed. On the downside, domestic violence has skyrocketed and divorce lawyers will be exceptionally busy once the quarantine has lifted. So will pediatricians, starting around December of this year.

The workplace, too, will change. No one saw this pandemic coming, and who could have predicted the insane hoarding of toilet paper as a reaction to it? Given all that, it’s hard to predict the future of the workplace. Nonetheless, the workplace experts we spoke with have some thoughts.

“We recognize that there is no 'flip a switch' scenario where everyone shows up back at an office and we continue as we were,” said Alan May, executive vice president and chief people officer for HP Enterprise. “In the immediate term, we are focused on the physical attributes of our team as they come back not only in the office but meeting customers out in the field. We are anticipating the need for wearing masks at work and temperature checks but are deferring to guidance provided by local authorities.”

HPE CEO Antonio Neri confirmed this with a recent blog post, stating, “Our work from home guidance will not be lifted just because government orders are removed; we will only re-open sites when we feel we are in the best position to welcome back team members safely.”

Will people return to the office?

The prime issue facing companies is how many employees will come back when stay-at-home orders are lifted. For example, Facebook, Apple and Twitter are among the many firms that told all of their employees not to come into the office and work from home. When all is said and done, how many will want to return? A recent survey by CNBC found just 55% of work from home people want to return to the office.

“A number of employees are quite comfortable working from home, but some will move right back to the office,” said Pat Morley, vice president and global product manager, co-location and workplace, for Sungard Availability Services.

“Most businesses are not at full production and working well in a lower mode of operation. A number of businesses aren’t working at full capacity, so we don’t know what will happen when the majority of businesses are working at full speed and there is more demand on them,” he added.

Larry Gadea, CEO of global workplace technology company Envoy, tracks office use patterns among corporate customers internationally and said that in his experience, people are ready to return to the office.

“A lot of people just want to work with each other,” he said. “I’m working longer hours, harder than ever, and I’m getting nothing done. We can get a lot done when there’s people in an office and we can have meetings. I have to set up a one-on-one for a quick idea rather than visit their desk. Camaraderie is lost on Zoom.”

Zoom Zooms

Zoom Video Communications has been the big technological winner of the shutdown, along with Netflix (for completely different reasons). The 9-year-old company has rocketed to the forefront of user mindshare, obliterating Cisco’s WebEx and Microsoft’s Skype and Teams videoconferencing solutions, and its daily participants exploded from 10 million in December 2019 to more than 200 million in March.

Zoom will likely continue to play an elevated role in the workplace. Goodson thinks remote work is the new expectation, regardless of industry. “I expect to see a lot more video interviewing. That will be a big change to workplace, doing more interviews virtually,” Goodson said. “That presents a whole host of changes. Are people ready to evaluate candidates that way?”

Daniel Ramsey, CEO of MyOutDesk, provider of virtual assistant services, predicts Zoom’s elevated profile is here to stay. “Zoom is looking to become a CRM and a hub for business. They weren’t thinking that two months ago,” he said.

VDI also gains traction

Another technology that’s getting a boost in the new normal of working from home is virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), where instead of the worker using their notebook’s desktop environment, they make a secure connection and have a whole other desktop on their screen, complete with the apps they need and access to the network.

“We’re seeing much more need for VDI,” said Morley. “Big hyperscale cloud providers have seen an uptick in need for virtual desktops because companies can quickly spin up a virtual work environment for their staff. If you can’t buy a new laptop, you can always go to a virtual desktop provider,” he said.

Paying attention to mental health

HPE, though, has come up with a very clever benefit for its staff, regardless of where they work. May said the company has invested in broader definition of wellness for its employees and has sprung for a subscription to the Headspace app, a meditation and relaxation app for phones and tablets. It’s not as popular as Calm, but it is one of the top meditation/relaxation apps on App Store and Google Play. “We are taking more interest in the mental health of our team,” said May.

No more coming in sick

This also means pushing back on people who come in when sick. The go-go tech industry is notorious for its workaholics who come in to the office even when sick and their boss has to tell them to go home. Other industries are more heartless and staff have to show up regardless of health condition. That will change in both cases.

“My peers have very appropriate sick leave policies,” said May. “We want to encourage people to stay home if they feel ill. What we’re seeing now is other industries that have not promoted this for their employees before are finally beginning to recognize the risk to their workforce if they don’t provide those benefits. My guess is you may see that statutorily enforced.”

“I think first and foremost, sick leave policies will change. Now that we've all experienced this together, employees will feel less pressure to 'tough it out' through colds, the flu, or other illnesses. Employers will make sure they communicate clearer in their policies as well. It will no longer be acceptable or expected that employees come to work sick,” said Melissa Cadwallader, a veteran HR executive with ZenBusiness, a Public Benefit Corporation that assists startups in setting up their business.

And managers need to set the right example, said Emily Goodson, CEO of CultureSmart, which partners with startups to build their HR network. “We see department heads coming in when they are sick and that sets a bad example for their junior staff. We need to frame it so that we tell people we need you to do your best work and you can’t do that when you are sick,” she said.

Goodson believes managers are now seeing the whole person of their employees more now, not just the worker, and hopes that means more empathy for each other and that continues when we get back into work culture to deal with things like burn out, illness, or they need some kind of support.

The end of the open office?

Perhaps no workplace concept is more disliked than the open office, where employees sit elbow to elbow at tables and have zero privacy. Story after story and plenty of research reports say they are productivity killers and employees hate them. One reason is if one person gets a cold, it goes right down the table and infects others because there is no barrier like with an office or cubicle setup.

In a post-COVID-19 world where Americans are wearing rubber gloves and N95 face masks just to go to the supermarket, this might be the death knell that is long overdue.

“I suspect you'll see the revolt against open offices play out in a few ways. Since social distancing will still be around for a while, at a minimum, open offices will have work areas spread apart more. Some offices will swing the pendulum the other way and retrofit their spaces to more individual desks and dividers. The most extreme change you'll see is an explosion of ‘fully remote’ teams,” said Cadwallader.

But Gadea isn’t so sure. “Maybe we will not see as many open offices. But a lot of people like the open office. It really depends on the job and types of people. We need more data to make the decision,” he said.

Whether or not open offices stay or go, it is likely that overall office populations will drop. “Many anti-work-from-home businesses are now seeing it can work out,” said Morely. “No one really knows right now, but why have an office in New York for 1,000 people when 300 can work at home? They will space people out as opposed to being tightly packed spaces now.”

Ramsey also believes there will be increased remote work, perhaps one or two days per week for staff. The result, he predicts, will be a lot of empty, unused office space.  “After long-term emptiness, old office space valuations will go to the floor. Companies will lease less and pay less. With a lot of people working remotely we will see a huge valuation shift for office space,” he said.

In general, overall office cleanliness will be a much higher priority, said Gadea. “Maybe people will realize that cramming twelve people in a meeting room for three or four isn’t a good idea. You’ll probably see a change in janitorial staffs cleaning more than before, and be more rigorous around cleaning and being more sanitary. It’s not going to be an option any more if your office hasn’t changed your air filter. This is going to be top of mind,” he said.

We can predict and prognosticate all we want, but how things eventually shake out is unclear. After the newness of working from home wears off people may long for the office. One thing that can be said about the 2020 quarantine, it is an opportunity for a lot of disruption at once and that is not always such a good thing. Change is good and necessary. Too much at once is chaos.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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