Last Thursday, the number of deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus in the United States surpassed 100,000. Protective measures like statewide stay-at-home orders, though, likely saved many more lives. When it comes to work, these government restrictions have temporarily changed almost every American’s workday. Once reopening offices becomes the norm, the persistent desire to protect each other will likely have lasting effects on how Americans interact in the office.
Two and a half months after the nationwide shutdown, most states have lifted stay-at-home orders and are opening non-essential businesses, including dine-in restaurants and hair salons. As of May 28, New Jersey is the only state in the U.S. that is still largely closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Even with nationwide lifting of business restrictions, not all non-essential businesses have the green light to reopen, especially if employees can work remotely. To date, no government or individual has a clear idea of when life can return to “normal” — in the meantime, non-essential businesses are taking two basic approaches: embracing long-term remote work or reopening with caution.
The majority of American workers say their employer is offering flex time or remote options during the pandemic, an increase of almost 20 percent since February 2020, according to a recent Gallup poll. A majority also reported that they would prefer continuing to work remotely even after workplaces reopen.
In many cases, remote work has proven viable in the long run. After a two-month trial period, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told employees in May that the remote work option would be open to them indefinitely.
Google hasn’t taken as big of a leap, but the tech giant will allow its employees to work from home until the end of 2020.
Remote work is finally getting the attention it deserves. Going remote brings marked benefits to employees and businesses, including increased productivity by as much as 40 percent, improved work quality, better engagement and over 40 percent better attendance, a significant reduction in turnover, and even increased profits of over 20 percent. That’s not to mention the benefits to families, sleep schedules and the environment (fewer miles driven on the road).
While remote work seems like the universal panacea to employee and business woes, the benefits of in-person collaboration can’t be dismissed. Coming together in person can have intangible benefits, including more effective communication and increased trust and camaraderie.
An April survey by software company Slack found that nearly half of knowledge workers who began working remotely during the coronavirus outbreak reported a diminished sense of belonging.
For some companies, a hybrid approach may be ideal, fostering independence and flexibility in some cases and community and collaboration when needed. That approach could also help companies take the necessary leisurely pace toward in-person work.
The Harvard Business Review (HBR) points to the information company Proquest as a model for this hybrid approach. Proquest’s research solutions division has three remote teams that come together every four months for a three-day summit to plan future work, innovate and socialize.
Outside of the summits, email, teleconferencing and face-to-face meetings have specific functions that play to their strengths. Email suffices for exchanging factual information, for example, but a phone call is best for making decisions.
No matter how companies decide to reconvene, one thing’s certain — offices will look very different in the coming months.
Obvious requirements in the near-term will be greater distances between desks, face coverings and increased cleaning. Some companies may even invest in technology like a sensor that can detect distances between individuals as well as apps that can track employee movement.
There’s a lot of pressure for companies to get office design right, given how grave the coronavirus pandemic has proven. And seeing how popular remote work has become, businesses will need to demonstrate that they have put care into workplace safety and comfort before employees will jump back into the rhythm of office work.
One silver lining for business leaders is that, to a certain extent, a one-size-fits-all approach can work. Commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield has published an 6 Feet Office design that doesn’t require a complete building renovation and meets the needs of safe distancing, traffic and interactions between employees.
The firm has already helped 10,000 businesses in China get back into their spaces. The Chinese have an advantage over Americans, though — more of their office buildings are equipped with advanced air-filtration systems that adhere to high indoor air quality standards. Indoor ventilation in U.S. offices is already substandard, to say the least.
Without solving the underlying issue of office air quality, spacing and sanitation methods won’t carry much weight. Until those updates are made, companies should keep their workers at home and continue to reap the benefits of remote work, though managers should consider meaningful ways to build a sense of belonging.
If companies take necessary office improvement to heart, there could be other incidental benefits. For one, there’s the issue of the prevalence of open offices — a fad meant to improve collaboration and cross-pollination that often achieves exactly the opposite. A study published in the HBR in 2019 found that firms that transition to open offices see a 70 percent decrease in face-to-face interaction.
Additional adjustments like adding dividers between desks could help resolve the privacy issues rampant in open offices, thus aiding productivity. Ironically, creating barriers could improve company communication.
Especially during a pandemic, business leaders have a responsibility for their employees’ wellness, safety and comfort. This responsibility extends past workplace morale. If employees are forced to return to subpar work conditions, executives are jeopardizing reputation and the company bottom line. If employees feel uncomfortable or become sick, companies aren’t simply risking liability, productivity and engagement — they are losing trust.
The business benefits of trust are quantifiable, and they have been measured. Trustworthy companies have stock market returns that are two to three times higher than the market average and claim 50 percent lower turnover rates than industry competitors. That’s not to mention greater customer satisfaction and employee engagement.
Responsible business owners and CEOs will listen to their employees, their needs and their timetables. No one individual has the right answer or schedule, but when it comes to this pandemic, the best answer errs on the side of caution.
How a company prepares its offices for returning employees will make a mark on its reputation — for better or worse.
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Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn.