10/19/2020 Jeni Kramer

The new office: COVID and the return to work

Mid-September marked half a year since the majority of the country’s office-based workers underwent the sudden transition to full-time remote work. Few knew that when we packed up our desks in March, we’d be in this for the long haul. But even amid added difficulties like lack of childcare, technology hiccups, and other distractions, most have managed to find a routine that works – at least, for the moment.

Now the question remains: when, if ever, will workers return to the office en masse? Many large companies like Uber, Airbnb, Google and American Express are extending their temporary work-from-home policies through summer of 2021; while others like REI plan to make remote work part of their permanent culture. When the time does come for us to trade our tattered sweats for more professional attire and dust the cookie crumbs off our keyboards, the offices we return to will likely look far different than what we have known. 

Office space

It’s possible the most striking difference will be in the number of people. Just as “social distancing” became a part of our vocabulary early on in the pandemic, “de-densifying” may become common in the next phase. This new term, which has been used primarily by schools laying out plans for the 2020/2021 academic year, refers to restricting the number of people who have access to a given space at any one time. De-densifying will be a key component in allowing people to return to work while still ensuring the ability to practice social distancing. In order to accomplish this, many employees will have to move to a hybrid approach incorporating some time in-office and some time working from home. Logging 40 hours a week at your office desk may be a thing of the past, with employees staggering days in the office to allow for reduced capacities. 

The office space itself will undoubtedly undergo some changes as well. Plastic barriers, higher cube walls, rearranged environments and more may all become the new standard. Depending upon state mandates or individual businesses’ policies, personal protective equipment (PPE) may be commonplace as well. Many businesses are already incorporating stations for personal protective equipment like hand sanitizer, masks and gloves at entrances, exits and other strategic locations. In a true sign of the times, some companies are creating branded, individual back-to-work safety kits including items like sanitizer, masks, gloves, tissues, soap, and stylus pens for use on high-touch surfaces like printers and elevator buttons.

Perks

While you are in the physical office, certain cultural touchstones will likely look very different than they did pre-COVID. Large meetings will no longer be part of day-to-day schedules (an acceptable sacrifice in the name of safety, if you ask most office workers). Instead cultures may shift toward smaller group meetings, or away from physical meetings altogether. Many will still lean on the virtual meeting cadences established during quarantine. 

COVID has also all but eliminated many of the pre-pandemic perks that helped facilitate team-building. The elimination of happy hours, catered lunches and office gathering spots like ping-pong tables or fully stocked breakrooms has many employers thinking about what benefits might be enticing to workers right now. Lavish in-office extras are giving way to perks more tailored to a fully or partially remote workforce. 

Offering a remote office budget has been successful for some. The Ecommerce platform Shopify has begun offering employees a $1,000 stipend to purchase any equipment that may help create a more productive home workspace. Some companies are even considering mental health benefits as a means of helping employees cope with work and life stresses amid this new reality. Research by non-profit organization Mind Share Partners found that more than 60% of workers say their mental health affects their productivity

Tech tools

We’ve already witnessed the large-scale shift in the tools we use to work. Communication tools like Slack and video-based conference platforms like Zoom that may have been in casual use pre-pandemic quickly became indispensable. And – like it or not – they are here to stay. With a large percentage of teams no longer operating out of a central location, dependence on these platforms is not expected to decrease. Employers will continue to lean on teleconferencing for other functions that would have once required additional people to visit their physical office like interviews and meetings with clients or vendors. 

The future

Many are still debating what the pandemic means for the future of office life. Whether we will eventually return to work as we knew it remains a question mark. This uncertainty has many employees and job seekers alike reconsidering what their ideal arrangement might look like. Long-term workplace alternatives, like the adoption of permanent work-from-home arrangements, lend themselves to a more nomadic type of lifestyle. Keeping COVID restrictions in mind, people can now work from a range of different locations including their homes, co-working spaces, and coffee shops; and even in cities outside of where their job is based. This type of freedom wasn’t on the menu when logging 40 hours a week at your desk was the expectation. Whether companies and workers ultimately fare better or worse as a result of these changes remains to be seen. But there’s no need to change out of your sweats just yet – for now, the great work-from-home experiment is still underway.

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