As states inch toward plans to reopen — and a few do more than inch — following a weeks-long COVID shutdown, some of us have started to consider when we’ll return to the office. That is, if we’re contemplating a return to shared workspaces at all.
In the grand scheme of things, the time that’s passed since the coronavirus first triggered social distancing and shelter-in-place orders in the U.S. is hardly any time at all. And yet, experts believe that the pandemic’s extended consequences, including to the ways in which we work, will be vast. For those fortunate to be still employed, anyone itching to reenter a previous version of their working life may soon discover that, in a post-COVID world, a return to past normals isn’t possible.
Not all of these changes spell doom and gloom, however. Given the speed and totality with which we’ve had to adapt during the past several weeks, discoveries have been made and new standards for the future of work have been set. Some are an improvement on the way we worked before. Others are simply the reflection of a new reality in which public health takes center stage.
Here are seven experts’ predictions for how the coronavirus has already reshaped the way we work, not just this year or the next, but potentially for good.
1. A lot of folks won’t return to offices at all.
Even before COVID, work-from-home policies were already seeing a major increase. Between 2005 and 2017, the U.S. saw a 159% increase in remote work, and by 2019, 43% of Americans said they worked from home “at least occasionally.” Having proven to ourselves and (our company’s leadership) firsthand that we’re capable of being productive workers at home — during the middle of a pandemic, no less — a good number of us won’t wish to return to our commutes and sterile office spaces once the pandemic is over.
Add to this the fact that additional surges of the virus are expected until a vaccine is available, and those who can work from home — a privilege that only about 30% of us had access to at the start of this pandemic — may see even less of a point to potentially expose themselves in an office.
“Once they’ve (worked from home), they’re going to want to continue,” Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, said, predicting this will be true for 30 percent of workers. Plus, she added, there are major financial incentives for companies to cut costs right now by cutting office leases, too: “The investor community is going to insist on it.”
2. For those who do return, open floor plans in offices are over.
Open floor plans were already a subject of scorn prior to the pandemic. Now, they’re moved from being a silly fad — one that, by the way, was first popularized by prison designers and later blown up by execs at HGTV who were hungry for male viewers — to downright dangerous. Over the past decade, as companies have opted to oust cubicles and private offices for more budget-friendly open floor plans, the amount of space per average office worker has declined by about 25 percent. But large, shared spaces without walls and clustered seating designed to pack in workers and encourage collaboration are big no’s now.
“You can't have that in the new era,” Zeke Emanuel, lead writer of the Center for American Progress’ coronavirus report, told Vice. “The open office plans that have people sitting shoulder to shoulder shouldn't be operating at full capacity anytime soon.”
3. Companies will rely on staggered schedules for on-site workers.
One of the biggest impediments to reopening offices is the danger that overcrowded workspaces will serve as hotbeds of contamination. For that reason, some companies may opt to rotate days that different groups of workers can come to the office, allowing them to keep work stations more safely spread apart.
“You’re trying to build confidence and a secure feeling,” Matthew Barlow, a vice chairman of Savills, told the New York Times, with another exec in realty echoing: “There could be A teams and B teams working different days.”
This is a pattern that could continue not just in the immediate future but for the long-term, too. The normalization of fewer workers in the office on any given day may mean less overall space is needed, compared to a 100% on-site staff, and thus lower overhead costs for companies.
4. Business travel will become more of a rarity.
In the past year before the pandemic, 62% of American workers traveled to another state for work — meaning that roughly 1.1 million people traveled for business each day. In the time we’ve had to adjust to remote working (and a version of life in which travel, for any reason, isn’t possible), many of us have already realized how few of our work meetings actually rely on face-to-face interaction for success. Increased familiarity with video conferencing means the format is unlikely to return to being seen as a substandard option once this is all over. Companies, too, are less likely to see a justification for travel expenses — especially when travel will continue to pose a threat to public health and, as has always been the case, the environment.
5. Millennial design will give way to hospital-esque interiors.
Giving your office a design facelift is less likely to mean spending $200 on a custom neon sign and more likely to mean investing in germ-deterring features. Higher quality air filtration systems, hard seating surfaces (so long, upholstery!) and potentially even UV lighting to help disinfect meeting rooms between uses are all on the table.
“There’s going to be a special effort to consider and think about every possible place within the built environment that a human being has touched and the possibility of that being a source of contamination,” Don Gilpin, president and chief operating officer at IFMA, told Vox.
6. Companies' civic engagement and social responsibility will increase.
If there’s only one lesson we glean as a society from the pandemic, hopefully it’s this: we are inarguably all interconnected. To continue operations in a post-pandemic world means that major companies must recognize the moral and ethical obligations they have not only to their own workers, but to humanity as a whole — a commitment many companies have already demonstrated in recent weeks.
“Fortune certainly favors companies with broad concern for all stakeholders and good workplace practices — they are better prepared to deal with and mitigate crisis, like the current coronavirus pandemic,” Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter said. “If there were ever a time to 'think outside the building' and be more aware of the wider system, it’s now. Operating in silos and paying attention only to a few stakeholders leads to vulnerabilities. Companies are dependent not only on global supply chains and what might be happening in other countries, but also on the state of institutions in their own communities."
A crisis like this has the potential to reframe that dependency as a positive opportunity, Moss Kanter said, making for a more organizations that are dedicated to the common good.
"A pandemic makes clear that there is a business interest in contributing to solving problems, such as the adequacy of the public health system, disparities in access to health care, availability of emergency child care, universal broadband and Internet access, or educating people in life skills such as resiliency and adaptability as well as tech skills," she said.
7. We’ll no longer pretend that work and life exist in separate spheres.
One of the pandemic’s most seismic impacts on the future of work has undoubtedly been dismantling the notion of “work-life balance.” Namely, that the two exist on opposite ends of the same pole and that little-to-no overlap should occur between them. While much of this argument was ostensibly set up to protect workers from too-demanding jobs and the expectation that it’s OK for work to bleed over into one’s personal life, an unanticipated consequence has been reinforcing the segmenting off of pieces of our lives in inauthentic ways. But for working parents during this pandemic, keeping those pieces segmented off has been impossible. Now that we've realized it isn't the end of professionalism as we know it for a child to be in the background of a Zoom call, it's likely to lead to a freer and more authentic way of working, for everyone.
"In 1990, sociologist Joan Acker observed that organizations 'assume a disembodied and universal worker,'" Danielle J. Lindemann, Associate professor of sociology at Lehigh University, wrote for Quartz. "For too long, we have struggled to perform as though we are 'disembodied' when the reality is that we are not. And now the reality has become much more difficult to paper over... Once we emerge from this crisis, we can no longer pretend that our family members are invisible or irrelevant to our working lives. This is the moment we were forced to admit, collectively, that we are not just employees but whole selves. Let’s remember that, before we are tempted to stuff the pieces of our lives back into their tidy boxes and begin again."