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Will COVID-19 end open plan offices, useless meetings, and handshakes?

Jana Kasperkevic Apr 29, 2020

As April comes to an end, after weeks of social distancing rules in effect, various states have began rolling out plans to slowly ease up COVID-19 related restrictions. The guidelines introduced by the White House earlier in April split reopening into three phases, with the first phase calling for employers to continue to encourage teleworking and to close common areas if offices did reopen. 

Even after most offices reopen, work life won’t be the same. To help us imagine what might await U.S. workers when they return, we reached out to experts to predict what post-COVID-19 offices will be like. 

Will more people work from home?

“More people will absolutely be working from home from this day forward,” according to Cara Silletto, president and chief retention officer at Crescendo Strategies.

“The biggest hurdle most companies faced were either technology barriers, which we’ve overcome, and mindset barriers of old-school leaders believing that people must be on site to be productive. Regarding the latter, we will see some go back to their default and be happy to be back in an office together again, but we’ll also see the other end of the spectrum where leaders will wonder why they’re paying so much rent for office space and devise an effective remote working plan.”

“While I can’t predict the actions of organizations moving forward, we did survey workers prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and less than half of professionals (47%) said their company provides the option to work remotely – which certainly leaves room for businesses to change their policies,” said Paul McDonald, senior executive director for Robert Half. “For leaders who weren’t sure a work from home setup would function for their teams, this may have just been the trial run that sets a change in motion.”

Employees who are working from home with no commute and fewer interruptions – that is, if they aren’t quarantined with kids – might also grow fond of working from home and might demand work from home options when choosing their future employers, Silletto said.

Could this be the end of open office? What about co-working?

In an interview with Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino, Ramon Peralta, founder of Peralta Design, said that they “may consider doing some plexiglass dividers or kind of cough shields” in their open floor plan office. Employees who feel uncomfortable coming into the office will be allowed to continue working from home. 

While we might see fewer open floor plan offices after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, co-working might be on the rise due to fewer people working in actual offices, Silletto said.

“My projection is that co-working spaces will thrive after this shift because more companies will reduce their required square footage when they renew their commercial real estate leases, allowing workers to stay home when desired and/or work from various cities if they find talent outside their geographic area,” she explained. “Because we’ll shift to more work from home situations, in addition to a growing gig economy, I think more people and businesses will sign on for co-working space options for their necessary in-person meetings and/or to be nearer to a professional network.”

How your office is designed going forward might be up to you, too. 
“The workers themselves may play the bigger role in these changes as offices start to open back up, they may be responsible for leading this change by making specific requests about their seating arrangements,” said McDonald. 

Is this the end of handshakes?

“I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you. Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease; it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said when interviewed by Wall Street Journal

But don’t celebrate the death of handshakes just yet, warns Silletto.

“I believe the handshake is over for 2020, but I have serious doubts that it will be gone for good,” she said. “It’s too deeply ingrained in our culture and behavior as a way to physically connect with one another. Once the current pandemic health threats have diminished, many people will accept handshaking again, but they will need to respect those who choose not to shake hands, and still carry hand sanitizer.”

What about meetings? Will we finally have fewer meetings?

Last year, meetings cost U.S. businesses $399 billion, according to Doodle, an online scheduling service. Doodle found that 44% of people said poorly organized meetings kept them from having time to do other important work. “That meeting could have been an email” is a common refrain in America’s workplace. Shifting to remote work could have led to fewer meetings had it not been for video conferencing tools like Zoom.

“Video calls can replace nearly all small, internal organizational meetings, and leaders who do not know how to prepare for and manage meetings effectively will continue to fail virtually,” Silletto said. “That means calendars will continue to be filled with 60-minute meetings that should have been 15.”

According to her, great managers will get better at utilizing tools available to them and turn this into an opportunity to change the way things have always been done before. Bad managers, however, might end up driving their employees away.

“For organizations that pride themselves on running “a lean crew,” they were already putting more than what was appropriate on managers’ and employees’ plates with very little cushion for staff turnover, training, mentoring, etc,” said Silletto. “I believe workers trying to juggle the new challenges today, such as homeschooling while working, will finally hit a breaking point of their employers demanding too much from them and they will go elsewhere to find more flexibility and a realistic workload.”

Will this have any impact on dress codes?

“Our recent (pre-pandemic) research found that more casual attire has already become more acceptable in the workplace over the past decade, and going from weeks in pajamas and sweatpants back to office clothes may be a struggle, but I’m not certain the ultra-casual wardrobe will work for work in the long run,” McDonald said. 

While workers might have to leave their sweatpants behind once they return back to the office, there is one thing he hopes they won’t leave behind: their empathy. 

“What we have seen more and more of is a sense of empathy, humanity and community among colleagues that I hope remains when we’re off Zoom and back in the conference room.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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