Also known as the "next" normal
You can feel the tension. As the world takes its first, halting steps toward reopening, everyone is holding their collective breath hoping we are finally on the road to recovery. The national media is doing a great job scaring us every night with expert after expert reciting the litany of things that could go wrong, but in this case, they may be doing all of us a public service. We must be careful and we must accept that some of our behaviors will likely change forever. Let's start with our jobs - there is no recent historical precedent for how the current economic environment will restart from where it is now, but the vast majority of those who have been working have been handling business from home. Assuming conditions continue to improve, what will the post-pandemic employment world look like?
Beyond the easy
We're going to have to get used to a few changes to our routines going forward. Face masks are likely here to stay, as are temperature checks to gain admittance to buildings. And the 75% percent of US households headed by a single parent or dual-working parents will probably see dramatic adjustments in school schedules come fall. The only way for a already full school to implement social distancing (aside from adding a second or third floor) is to utilize staggered schedules and/or an all-year calendar. This adds capacity without the space requirement. The restaurant industry is also evolving rapidly, with more dispersion of tables, touch less payments, disposable menus and increased reliance on reservations to control capacity. Pre-ordering and prepayment has already begun to be used to reduce the physical contact needed to hand menus and credit cards back and forth. This is the obvious stuff, but what about work?
What about work?
At one time or another, just about all of us have been told our jobs are not quite right for working remotely. The reasons were many and some were reasonably convincing - clients won't have the access they are used to, campaigns will run aground and company secrets will be at risk, among others. But after a two-month global lockdown, virtually all of these issues have been proven to be solvable. Best of all (from the employer perspective), productivity actually increased. Recent studies show remote employees work the equivalent of nearly 1.5 days more per month. This adds up to more than three extra weeks per year! And perhaps counter-intuitively, there is less absenteeism, job stress and turnover with these (more productive) employees. Skeptics might say sure, people are going to be on their best behavior in the middle of a global pandemic with jobs being shed left and right, but data (from Harvard University and others) dating back five or more years support the increased productivity conclusion. The Harvard study also determined that the subject company saved almost $2,000 per month in reduced furniture, supplies and office space expense by moving employees to remote work.
The next office normal
With remote work now proven to be not just doable but cost-effective for companies, the question remains - will we ever want to inhabit a traditional office again? Consider that back in the 1980s and 90s, cube farms were the rage. Most everyone had the same space, the same desk and drawers, and the same view. These gave way to open concept seating and shared common spaces. The idea was to promote collaboration and teamwork, which now is viewed as possibly toxic and life-threatening in the physical sense. We are already seeing cashiers and others interacting with the public from behind clear panels. These will be adapted to offices as well, possibly along with painted "lanes" on the floor to guide foot traffic and preserve social distancing. Cleaning used to be handled after business hours, but now this increasingly critical function might be initiated in front of employees to make them less queasy about being in the office. And we might be sticking our editorial neck out here a bit, but going forward, might the real question be not who gets to work from home but who must go to the office? If collaboration is the goal, haven't we proven collaboration works just as well via Zoom or Skype? One last thought on office life - how the heck do you get 150 people up to the 30th floor while maintaining social distancing? Two at a time?
Lots of questions
Remote work is here to stay. Millions of people have now successfully handled their daily responsibilities for two or more months without ever setting foot in their offices. And like our elected representatives know, once someone has gotten used to a benefit there will be considerable "reluctance" to give it up. The next few months will certainly be eye-openers for employees and employers alike. But we can confidently predict that the future of work will look very different and we are among those who are onboard with the change.