In the last few months, the coronavirus pandemic has upended the daily lives of people around the world. Companies and organizations have had to play a key role in protecting employees' health and safety. The economic impact of the virus has led to new categorizations of essential workers, a large-scale move to remote work, and skyrocketing unemployment that is expected to continue increasing.
Amid stay-at-home orders across the country, non-essential office workers have ditched their daily commutes to work from dining room tables, couches, and beds in their own homes. Many may find themselves in this situation for the long haul, as companies struggle to find a path forward while restrictions slowly lift.
Here are some of the ways the pandemic could forever transform the way we work:
Mandatory on-the-job medical screening.
Health and legal experts predict that on-the-job medical screening such as antibody tests, and temperature checks, will be a reality for those who return to work in the months ahead. In many cases it has already been implemented, to combat the spread of the virus among essential workers. Some of the corporations have begun taking the temperatures of their employees before they are allowed to work.
In the near future employees may be asked to show some form of immunity certificate, verifying that they have immunity to the virus before they return to work. This approach, in which employees take an antibody test to confirm that they have immunity, is being embraced in countries such as the United Kingdom, which is attempting to roll out an immunity passport program.
However, some scientists have warned that it is yet to be scientifically proven that having antibodies for Covid-19 gives a person immunity. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, has indicated that the immunity certificate program is being discussed and that it might have merit under certain circumstances.
Working in an office could become a status symbol
Following the pandemic, it’s likely that more employees will split their time between working from home and a corporate office. The amount of time employees spend working in proximity with others, and what a regular work week looks like will be the biggest cultural shift moving forward.
With more employees working remotely, businesses may open regional hubs, allow employees to permanently work from home, or provide access to co-working spaces wherever their workers are concentrated rather than have the majority of their employees in one central office. For example, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tells employees they can work from home ‘Forever’ with an exception of the employees who wish to work within the traditional office structure.
Jane Oates, president of Working Nation says that a company’s investment in its headquarters could become a way to recruit talent. Job seekers may consider it a draw to work for a corporation with a physical location, which could boost brand awareness and overall influence within the industry.
As a result, company headquarters may become a status symbol for the businesses that still have the budget and a workforce big enough to warrant pricey real estate in a major city.
Office buildings might become ‘elaborate conference centers’.
Office buildings of the future may become facilities to gather, while focused work is done remotely. This could possibly mean fewer walled-off offices and more gathering spaces to host company-wide events, conferences, and meetings.
The open office floor plan will likely stick around in the future. Despite the stereotype that they kill productivity, it’s likely businesses will still use the layout to lower real estate costs. However, open layouts might change, partitions could go up, desks could become spaced out, antibacterial wipes will become the norm, and cleaning stations stocked with hand sanitizer. Some businesses may seek out spaces for focused work, such as privacy booths and cubicles.
Architects may also begin designing spaces with durable building materials, surfaces, flooring, and furniture that can withstand frequent deep-cleaning, which is expected to be a lasting necessity for the future workplace.
Automation will be accelerated.
The pandemic has heightened fears that automation will replace the jobs of workers. Due to the current social distancing measures, many businesses from retailers to restaurants have been forced to find ways to operate with as few workers physically present as possible.
Jake Schwartz, co-founder, and CEO of the General Assembly agrees that the pandemic will accelerate automation. “It’s pulling the future forward and companies are going to be going digital much faster, they’re going to be automating much faster. And in that context, are we looking at mass unemployment? We don’t know.”
For years, corporations have been working towards automating repetitive jobs through robots that can streamline manufacturing, algorithms that can complete administrative tasks, and drones that can deliver goods. Researchers have found that this kind of automation is quickly adopted during economic downturns.
Home office stipends could become a common perk.
E-commerce company Shopify and Twitter issued mandatory work-from-home orders for employees in March 2020, both employers provided employees with additional resources to help smooth the transition to remote work. At Shopify, workers were given a stipend to purchase necessary supplies for their home office spaces. Meanwhile, at Twitter, all employees, including hourly workers, received reimbursement for home office equipment including ergonomic cushions, desks, and chairs.
If working remotely becomes the norm, employers will have to provide employees with the resources needed to be productive. This includes a stipend that will allow workers to sufficiently customize their space. This flexibility will also allow businesses to save money on the overhead cost of running these massive facilities.
On average, companies that allow employees to work from home part-time save about $11,000 per year for each employee working remotely, according to research-based consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics.
Colleagues could become closer.
If there’s one bright side to how the virus will impact the future of work, it’s that it could strengthen the personal relationships we form with our colleagues. Workplace friendships could flourish among colleagues who strengthened their teamwork while working remotely, and those who relied on each other during the pandemic.
Despite the possibility of more in-person interaction among colleagues after the pandemic, handshakes are on their way out. Health experts recently advised that handshaking needs to stop even when the pandemic ends, gestures that can convey respect and friendliness from a distance, such as a smile or a nod, might become the social norm.
Most meetings could be replaced by teleconferencing and emails
The pandemic has been a technological equalizer of sorts, where employees previously not conversant with the use of technological tools in the workplace have had no choice but to adapt and develop new muscles to work virtually. And in some cases, some employees are becoming more efficient.
For team members who no longer work together in a central office, meetings and phone calls have moved to teleconference platforms. When you’re invited into a colleague’s home via video chat or you’re able to pick up on nonverbal cues, a different type of intimacy is formed in a faster way than would occur in the traditional working environment. This might help in building trust among colleagues who can’t interact in person,” says Nadjia Yousif, managing director, and partner of Boston Consulting Group's London office.
To that end, we should expect a generally more agile way of working and communicating with other colleagues. More meetings will become video chats and emails, and more emails will become instant messages.
It could be the end of business trips as we know them.
As international travel of all kinds has been halted, telecommuting is adopted at scale, and businesses attempt to balance their budgets and, cut costs. Business trips as we know them will be a thing of the past.
Changing consumer preferences and greater interest in social distancing has limited large group events such as conventions and conferences for the foreseeable future and decreased the volume of business travel.
During this pandemic, corporations will learn that some business travel is unnecessary and can be done via virtual meetings. Also, as businesses attempt to recoup their pandemic-related losses, travel budgets will be cut.
The standard 9-to-5 office hours might become a thing of the past.
As employees juggle the demands of home life and work-life all in the same place, many employers have relaxed regulations about workers starting and ending their days at a set time. It will be a lot harder for employers to deny flexibility around work settings, and work hours.
To maintain a sense of structure, employers will have to set expectations for when they need everyone online for staff meetings or team activities. To create a balance between personal time, and work time, managers, and employees will have to work closely together to ensure that no one is feeling pressured to respond to video calls, and emails at all hours of the day.
All in all, authorities, employers, and employees must work together to find and embrace pragmatic solutions in this challenging time.
Ms Georgina Musembi
Kenya School of Revenue Administration (KESRA)