• As businesses reopen, what will the post-COVID workplace look like?
  • The stress of the pandemic will have left many workers in a vulnerable emotional state.
  • Employers will need to be sensitive to the fact that many don’t have a choice about whether to go back to work when workplaces reopen.
  • Many managers may emerge with new empathy for workers who have long argued for greater flexibility.

After nearly four months of a coronavirus-compelled shutdown, many workers across the U.S. are being asked to return to offices and shop floors. The kind of workplace they’ll be returning to, however, is not so clear. After all, COVID-19 cases are active and even on the upswing in areas across the country, and, with much still unknown about how the virus spreads and behaves, many wonder whether the workplace they will find will ever look and function like the one they had before the middle of March.

“It’s the six-million-dollar question,” says Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard. “In the near term, no, we’re not going back to pre-March 12, at least through the next several months to a year as we try to think about how to safely go back and work and not endanger ourselves and our colleagues in terms of a potential threat from the virus. So, certainly in the near term it will be quite different with social distancing guidelines regarding gatherings and even the way we physically sit near each other.”

There will continue to be a lot more remote work for those for whom it is possible, she adds. “But I also think that at some point people will want to get back to an experience which is more ‘normal’ in terms of having interactions with colleagues and meeting people face to face,” Rothbard says.

The transition back to a physical workplace, though, promises to come with perils both real and perceived, as well as new kinds of tensions.

“How do we deal with people who are afraid to come back to the office or facility?” asks Peter Cappelli, Wharton management professor and director of the Center for Human Resources. “Employers in the U.S. can make them [come in to work] – if they don’t have leave that they are allowed to take and there is no argument that they are especially at risk, such as an employee who has a respiratory condition. Even then, if there is no way for them to do the job and feel safe, the employer can put them on unpaid leave or dismiss them.”

A workplace fraught with emotion

Workers may find offices much changed after returning from their several-month absence. But another thing that has been altered by the crisis is us, according to Wharton marketing professor Cait Lamberton. Greater creativity and ingenuity may be two artifacts to come from an episode that has forced many to think differently about how they work. Employers have also noted greater productivity in some cases. Will that last as we return to the workplace?

“We’re talking about this as a very cognitive process, and that’s certainly the case. Cognitive structures get disrupted, they allow more creativity, they become more flexible – all those great things happen,” Lamberton noted in an interview for Wharton’s Fast Forward: COVID-19 video series. (Watch the full video below.)

“We also have to take into account, though, that we can’t expect it evenly across the population,” Lamberton added. “For people who have lost friends or family members, who are ill themselves, emotion is an incredibly powerful force in shaping cognition. And things like sadness and grief take a very long time to dissipate. They are the kinds of emotions that are going to reduce action tendency, and so as the severity of this continues, as we all experience more personal losses, we are going to have to be careful about our expectations…..”

Some, of course, don’t have the luxury of choice regarding their return to work.

“Most working-age people need income either from work or from unemployment insurance. The ability to live off some other income source or savings is not the norm,” says Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics Robert Hughes. “Eligibility requirements for unemployment insurance vary by state, but unemployment insurance normally only covers people who are unemployed through no fault of their own. People are unlikely to be eligible for unemployment insurance if their former workplace reopens and they choose not to go back to work because they are afraid of contracting coronavirus. Thus, when states and cities decide to relax restrictions on what businesses can open, they are not merely letting people go back to work. They are also making people go back to work.”

Employers need to be sensitive to the fact that many don’t have a choice about whether to go back to work when workplaces reopen, says Hughes. “In many cases, offering hazard pay is a fair way of compensating workers for the elevated risk of being in the workplace. But hazard pay cannot make up for an employer’s failure to take safety measures.”

One of the most important safety measures employers need to take is offering paid sick leave, and doing so is an ethical imperative, he says.

“Failure to provide paid sick leave can put workers, customers, their families, and the wider community at risk. If an executive or an owner of a profitable business chooses not to offer paid sick leave during this pandemic, despite being able to do so, they can no longer claim to be making an honest living. Lives are at stake,” says Hughes.

“At some point people will want to get back to an experience which is more ‘normal’ in terms of having interactions with colleagues and meeting people face to face.”

— Nancy Rothbard

The perils of presenteeism

Another problem is that while many workplaces have paid sick time, actually taking it is not always in the culture of the firm.

Presenteeism may have been merely a workplace nuisance before, “but now there is much more fear around that, and putting policies in place demanding that people stay at home when they are sick is more important,” says Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary. In addition, managers must send the message that the act of showing up is not considered an indicator of how committed a worker is to the job, “otherwise you will just have people showing up at work who should really be staying home. There has to be a cultural change around when it’s okay to come to work and when it’s not okay to come to work.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a set of guidelines that encourage a starkly different workplace than the one left gathering dust since mid-March. It includes tossing aside car-pooling and public transportation, the recommendation that face coverings be worn at all times, desks spaced at least six feet apart, temperature and symptom checks, and the elimination of communal snack areas.

Even the experts disagree, though, about when workers can reasonably feel that the workplace they are returning to is actually safe. The New York Times recently polled 511 epidemiologist and infectious disease specialists about their own plans for returning to normal activities like flying or getting a haircut, and when it comes to working in a shared office, only 27% said they expect to return to the office this summer. The largest percentage — 54% — said they expected to do so sometime between three and 12 months from now.

“As much as I hate working at home, I think that working in a shared indoor space is the most dangerous thing we do,” Sally Picciotto of the University of California, Berkeley, told the Times. She was among the 18% who foresee waiting a year or more before returning to the office.

“When states and cities decide to relax restrictions on what businesses can open, they are not merely letting people go back to work. They are also making people go back to work.”

— Robert Hughes

Some firms, like Twitter, say their workers may be able to work from home “forever.” Facebook says half of its employees may eventually be working entirely from home.

The number of people who have worked from home between mid-March and April doubled to 62%, according to an April 2 Gallup poll of 2,276 Americans over the age of 18. Three in five who have been working from home would like to continue to do so after the public health crisis is over.

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The number of people working from home between mid-March and April doubled to 62%.
Image: Gallup

A huge test case, silver linings

How form follows function in the next iteration of the physical office isn’t yet clear. But it does appear that the COVID-19 crisis may help along the demise of the open office concept promoted in corporate culture for so long.

“It looks beautiful, but from a working standpoint it’s distracting, and privacy is really hard,” says Rothbard. “The open-office concept can make it difficult to really get into deep work, and I think given the health issues we are now seeing it may be more challenging. The pandemic has highlighted for us the power of fresh air and the circulation of air. The diffusion of the particles is seemingly important, so having an office with windows that open could also be desirable. Having the ability to really control the hygiene of your workspace is going to be important for people going forward.”

The COVID-19 crisis has also pulled back the curtain on certain changes to work life that are likely to continue. Many managers may emerge with new empathy for workers who have long argued for greater flexibility. After all, for some managers, this period may have been the first time they experienced what it means to have work and home lives colliding – a tugging toddler and a Zoom meeting vying for attention simultaneously.

“Some of the strategies we are using right now are actually making the case for things like gender equality and workplace flexibility that many have been advocating for a long time.”

— Stephanie Creary

“I think it is clear that some of the strategies we are using right now are actually making the case for things like gender equality and workplace flexibility that many have been advocating for a long time,” says Creary. “And perhaps workers were not getting support for them in the past, or they were getting penalized, so this is like a huge test case. I think that it’s not just about now, during COVID-19 – it’s a new-way-of-work question. As challenging as the situation has been for all of us in not having access to normal resources in working, I do believe this has been helpful in pushing forward discussions around access and equality. I am hopeful now that we have had to rely on flexible work and become empathetic for people who can’t get on the call because they were tending to other responsibilities like care-giving that we can imagine a future where some of these policies become institutionalized in the way they were meant to work.”

Perhaps, too, workers will return to the office or shop floor with a new ability to boil the job down to its most essential components. For managers in particular, this moment is an opportunity to be clear with workers about what the expectations are, Rothbard says.

“What are the requirements of the job? What do we need to get done? What is the core task and what are the things that are peripheral to the task? Managers have to be clear about metrics and expectations. That will give a great deal of clarity to people, especially as they come back, about exactly what their focus should be. And that clarity will help to reduce the uncertainty we’re all feeling.”