There have been many articles published about how to prepare to return to work, but how will jobs and the workplace culture be when you return? Will everything go back to how it was or will it be different? In the past few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted companies and the way they operate. New policies and procedures and alternate ways to communicate were required by workplaces in order to quickly adapt to operating in a very different environment. As cases begin to decline, companies are preparing to go back to work and are hoping things will eventually get back to normal. [Editor: Infection rates have risen since this was written.] The truth is that there is likely no chance of going back to normal. Even once a vaccine is found, the pandemic will leave an everlasting mark on jobs and the ways companies operate.
While no one can predict the future, here are some of the ways the workplace is expected to change and how your company can begin to prepare for what may become the new norm.
More Work at Home Opportunities Will be Expected
Not all managers and company owners are a fan of working at home. In fact, 76% of HR Leaders reported to Gartner that the top employee complaint during COVID-19 has been "concerns from managers about the productivity or engagement of their teams when remote." When employees are working at home, it's harder to track what they are working on and confirm they are not only being productive, but also putting in the same amount of effort as when they are in the office. Studies have found; however, people tend to be more productive when given the freedom of working from anywhere as opposed to needing to be in an office environment. A 2019 survey by gig work platform Airtasker found that remote employees work 1.4 more days each month. It was also found that remote workers took more breaks, but this boosted their productivity.
Before the outbreak, 69% of organizations already offered a remote work option on an ad hoc basis to some employees, while 42% offered it part time, and 27% offered it full time, according to SHRM's 2019 Employee Benefits Survey. Now that more people have had the opportunity to work at home and have proven productivity, it will be hard to take away this "perk" from employees. Many have been able to adapt to working at home and now would prefer it. They have experienced the luxury of waking up and being only feet away from their office. A Gallup survey even revealed that 54% of U.S. workers would leave their current job for one that allowed them to work remotely. Studies as these and employees having had the firsthand experience of working at home, will leave workplaces very little choice, but to offer some work at home options in order to retain top talent.
Most likely companies won't have to go fully remote, but flexibility will be the new mantra. It's true, not everyone works at home well and not everyone prefers it so having the option to go into an office environment will be a big perk for some. Whether companies let employees choose if they want to come in or implement a staggered schedule, where smaller groups of employees will still be expected to come in on certain days, it will need to be decided what is best for the company. What is certain, is that working at home has proven to be profitable for companies. You will just need to decide what work at home policies will work best for your company.
What Will Come of the Office Environment?
With more employees working at home in the future, what will come of the office? Companies may only land up having regional hubs or co-work environments, where people can come in and choose where they want to sit versus having an assigned desk. Offices will be seen more as intricate conference room centers with fewer walled offices and more areas to hold meetings. Office spaces may even grow to become "Status Symbols". If your company has an office, you must be doing well to afford it. Just the opposite of what is trending now may become true, while many people see it as a perk to work at home, job seekers may find it a draw to work at your company if you have an office space.
In terms of the physical office space, you can expect to see shared spaces have more touchless fixtures. Sinks, soap dispensers, light switches, and doors may all become automatic. While many office spaces already have this in place, it will become more standard. Some even expect voice activated elevators to avoid touching buttons!
It is also anticipated that even the design of the office space will become more similar to how hospitals are designed. The way furniture and flooring are made will change to be more durable to withstand the chemicals in cleaning products. There may even be more talk about air filtration that uses ultra violet light for cleaning when everyone goes home at the end of the day. Office spaces will most likely have more sinks throughout for washing hands. Hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes being placed throughout the office will also be the new norm.
How Will Jobs Change?
The Effect on Working at Home
With more people working at home, it will cause greater global competition. If you can work from anywhere, more people internationally may be applying for that job you want. On the upside though, this will also allow for more opportunities. You may be able to work for an international company without having to leave the U.S. What causes blurred lines though is how salaries will be determined based on cost of living. Will someone's salary be considered based on where they reside or will the salary be determined by the region in which the office is in?
There are also various perks that companies offer now for employees, such as snacks in the kitchen, company lunches, birthday cakes to celebrate birthdays, and more. How will these benefits be translated if employees are at home? Companies will need to think of new ways to provide benefits to replace these. Perhaps you can still hold a large corporate meeting once a year, where breakfast/lunch/dinner are all paid for and gifts are handed out. Some companies who are already working at home, such as Shopify and Twitter, offer "Home Office Space Stipends" to order office supplies and home office furniture. This could be a new benefit offered to employees as well.
Cutting of Mid Management Positions
It is expected that more Mid Management Positions will be eliminated. This was seen after the 2008 Financial Crisis. Middle Management positions were cut, which caused less opportunity for growth and salary increases. Companies may find they can eliminate the middle man, such as middle managers and consultants with the digital transformation. The new role of a manager will be a team leader, where they both mentor and produce their own results.
Temp Jobs Will Be More Common
While temp jobs are less stable than full time positions with benefits, they will be more common even after we are clear of the pandemic. Companies who were affected by it will be cautious to hire back full-time workers. Instead, contract workers offer more flexibility, less commitment, and less money. Many individuals who were working full-time jobs have already transitioned to temporary work. Companies such as Walmart, Amazon, Target, Domino's Pizza, have seen an increase in online orders and food delivery which has led to more temp opportunities available.
Less Business Travel
These past few months have proven that companies are able to work at home and still conduct business meetings, conferences, training, and more. Technologies such as GoToMeeting® and Zoom®, have allowed companies to communicate not only internally, but externally with clients and prospective clients. Conducting business virtually has shown companies that it isn't the most cost effective to send someone on a business trip if a virtual meeting is just as effective. In some cases, in-person interactions will still be necessary, but companies will be thinking more about eliminating reasons for business travel to save money when it may be an unnecessary expense to occur.
More Flexible Work Hours
The standard 9-5 work hours may soon be a thing of the past. The pandemic has shown you can not only work from anywhere, but work at any time. Often times you hear that people are working more when they are at home, simply because they start earlier and end later since they don't have the commute time to worry about. Many individuals also take a break for dinner and land up returning back to the laptop to finish up a project they were working on. As long as the work gets done during the day, it may no longer matter what time you must start and end. Having this flexibility allows individuals to build a schedule around themselves, which leads to a better work/life balance.
On the Job Medical Screening
On the job medical screening may become a norm. Before entering your workplace, you may have to do temperature and/or antibody tests. Employers such as Amazon, Walmart, Home Depot and Starbucks have already begun doing this before allowing employees to work. Employers are legally permitted to check the temperature of employees and encouraged to do so by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All employees will have to be tested, otherwise it would be illegal to pick and choose who is tested.
Dr. Fauci has also talked about the possibility of an "immunity certificate", verifying employees have immunity to COVID-19 before returning to work. This would involve an antibody test to confirm employees have immunity. Employees would then present the certificate before returning. The United Kingdom has already implemented a similar program called the Immunity Passport Program.
Some experts even talked about the possibility of adding body temperature monitors underneath desks to monitor if someone has a temperature. A similar technology already exists so it wouldn't be hard to implement, however, it could pose some morale issues if employees feel like they are constantly being monitored.
Automation & Technology Accelerated
The idea of automation being accelerated can sound scary. Everyone thinks of movies such as I, Robot where robots take over the world and turn their backs on humanity. Some do predict though that COVID-19 will cause an increase in the acceleration of automated technology to eliminate jobs. Algorithms can be put in place for administrative tasks, robots can perform tasks in manufacturing, and drones can deliver goods. This would all help eliminate the concerns of needing to get rid of employees to social distance, while maintaining operation.
With more people working at home, the digital divide is also expected to close. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 21 million Americans lack access to the internet still, meaning many workers aren't able to work at home. A different study from WhistleOut showed that 35% of people surveyed said their weak Internet has prevented them from doing their work at some point during the Coronavirus and 43% said they had to use their phone as a hotspot during the crisis. As working at home becomes more of the norm of businesses, it is hoped that government officials see the need to increase broadband infrastructure. Funding and resources may vary by state, but it would allow equal access to all residents in the state to work at home. As new homes are built and existing homes remodeled, working from home will be taken more into consideration as well. New technology will be developed for working at home. A company called Argodesign has already developed a concept called the Square, which allows you to raise a shade and see your co-workers working right next to you!
Investments in Technology at Companies
Not only does the government and technology companies need to be thinking about technology though. All companies will need to invest in the proper technology to allow their employees to efficiently and productively work at home for the long term. A study from G&S found that 40% of Americans who've begun working remotely say one of the top challenges is setting up technology, like phones and laptops. Other issues employees have found is not having the proper headset for phone calls, not having a second monitor, and more. The first step companies will have to take is ensure all employees have the right equipment and have it setup correctly to operate efficiently in a home office. The second step, is having the right technology. Companies have been using webinar and chat platforms to communicate with teams during this time. Going forward, the right technology to hold meetings and communicate with team members will need to be decided upon-whether that is GoToMeeting® versus Zoom® or Microsoft Teams® versus Slack®. Webinar and chat platforms such as these, will be used more and more going forward to hold meetings and communicate with team members. The use of camera's for meetings will also become more standard. As less people go into the office, video chats will be needed to maintain the face to face connection you have with your team members.
Companies will also need to think about technology needed within the industry they work in to help streamline processes and allow for remote work flexibility. For example, staffing companies will need to invest in a cloud based ATS/CRM solution. An all-in-one solution that has front/back office, web portals, and a mobile application will be needed more than ever. A cloud based all-in-one solution will allow teams to work remotely, streamline processes & communication, work more efficiently, and keep data all in one hub. This will also give companies the ability to run advanced reports that give "big picture" company insights. Other technology investments staffing companies will need to think about is video interviewing platforms. More interviews will be conducted virtually going forward, so having the right technology to perform effective interviews will be essential.
Workplace Culture, Fashionable Masks, and Hand Shakes
With more people working remotely, there is the big question of what will happen to the workplace culture. Will employees feel less connected to one another? Gallup research revealed those with some remote work options have the highest employee engagement, while those with no remote option and those who work remotely 100% of the time have a somewhat lower employee engagement. This doesn't mean that one or the other is guaranteed in any situation, but you will have to find the right sweet spot for your company to maintain your culture and keep employees engaged.
While we can't predict what the future will hold, research and studies find that there will be no going back to normal. Work life as we knew it will forever be changed and companies must begin to adapt. Does that include a fashionable mask that matches your outfit every day? Or replacing handshakes with elbow bumps going forward? Who knows! Our future selves will one day find out.
Terri Roeslmeier is President and CEO of Automated Business Designs, Inc. (ABD), developer of software for the staffing industry. Prior to ABD Terri worked for Electronic Data Systems (EDS).© 2020 Terri Roeslmeier
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