Will there ever be a complete return to normal? Do we even want “normal?” After all, 2019-normal meant sharing crowded, open offices with people you knew were sick. It meant stacks of donuts in the break room, pawed through before being returned to the tray by fellow workers. It meant being expected to shake hands or even hug other employees –– no matter how you felt about the practice. The old normal was crowded coach flights and chaotic commutes. So what is 2021 normal? How will offices change after COVID ? Here are four ways they may be changed forever.
1. Remote Work Will Be Common
Perhaps the biggest shift in the American workplace is that the workplace might be your living room. Over one year after the pandemic, well over half of all workers who can work remotely are still doing so. Although some are doing so to avoid getting sick, many find their work-life balance has improved as has their productivity. Self-employed teleworkers often bragged about their flexibility and productivity. Anyone trying to complete a project in a noisy office likely envied them. Yet company heads often discouraged the practice, claiming those crowded open-floor plan offices promoted collaboration and teamwork.
A year plus into the remote-working experiment and a sizable percentage of the workforce has little interest in going back to the office. Although in-office work will never completely disappear, hybrid models will proliferate while skilled professionals who want to work from home will be allowed to. The impacts are huge –– reduced numbers of commuters means less pollution, less crowded freeways, and less of a need for mass transit. The environmental impacts could be enormous not to mention the reduction in stress and increase in family time.
2. Expanded Sick leave
Yep, pre-pandemic 90% of workers admitted to coming into the office despite being sick. Long before anyone had heard of COVID-19, numerous studies showed how viruses spread in offices –– especially ones with open floor plans and/or crowded conditions. In just one year –– 2016 –– the flu accounted for $5.8 billion in health care and lost productivity costs.
That’s why major employers like Netflix and LinkedIn provide unlimited sick days. So companies that haven’t already stepped up in terms of expanded sick leave are going to have to. Plus, let’s face it. This pandemic was horrible but it could have been even worse. The average age of death during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 was 28. Think about that. The average age of death during the COVID-19 pandemic was over 70. So the next viral spread in an office could be far more deadly. Most experts doubt we’ve seen the last global pandemic of our lives.
3. Reduced Business Travel
A few years ago, a study showed that 62% of American workers had traveled to another state for work in the past 12 months. Many of them did so because they thought it could help their career. Former high-flying executives discovered last year that they could close deals and meet with clients via videoconferencing. Not only did they avoid crowded coach flights and interminable airline terminals, they got to spend more time with their family and avoid jet lag. Few are eager to return to the skies. So while leisure travel will slowly improve, business travel is likely affected for years to come. That’s not so great for the many who work for hotels or airlines. Still, in terms of business traveler’s mental and physical health it’s a definite win.
4. More Space
Crowded hallways. Crowded elevators. Crowded kitchens as co-workers gather around chic cuisine. All likely a thing of the past. If you’re wondering how will offices change after COVID, one shift is that there will be more distance between all of us. The CDC recommends that companies increase the amount of physical space between employees. That means large gatherings and shared meals may not come back for a while. Introverts can rejoice!
Companies are adopting varied schedules to reduce the number of workers in an office at any one time while buildings are greatly limiting capacity. While scary movies might lead you to worry about a plummeting elevator, it turns out that just boarding the thing with a few other people is potentially dangerous. Yes, vaccinations will make most people protected from COVID-19. That doesn’t mean workers are in a hurry to get sick from the cold or the flu. The pandemic changed the way we think about illness and how it is spread. That won’t go away.
In the long run, tall buildings that can hold thousands of people may never regain their popularity. Now, if they can just design offices with windows that open.
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