How will COVID-19 affect the way we perceive work?
This article was originally written in September 2020.
COVID-19 has already affected companies, cities and even entire economies. Even though we are done with COVID-19, COVID-19 is not done with us. So, what does this mean for the way we perceive work?
COVID-19 has heavily impacted the way we work. I believe that, even if there will be a vaccine to the virus, there is no way we are going back to ‘what was before’. The way we work has been impacted in such a way that companies have finally recognized the value of alternative forms. It baffles me that, for some reason, we are still holding on to Dolly Parton’s nine to five dogma which was originally based on agricultural economies and even pre-historic cultures (you need natural light to hunt and grow crops). Now with the miracle of human-made light a lot of industries have the option to re-design their working days. So, in this blog I will be talking about how I will think that the way we work will be impacted (and what we are going to do with all those empty office buildings).
First, let’s get into the obvious. With the COVID-19 crisis many offices closed their doors, forcing people to work remotely. This often involves Zoom meetings with: people who are dressed in cosy clothes, interruptions of cat’s, children, and the occasional doorbell, and connectivity issues which makes you pull your hair out. But we have gotten used to it, more or less. The opinions are divided on how good it works. Some people want to go back to the office to socialize and others hail it as the new way of working. I am not going to take a stance in how well it works, but I am going to take a stance in whether this is a temporary phenomenon or not. Just to be clear: it is here to stay.
I think there will be some alterations in the future. Working remotely all of the time will still be an option, but I think that many people will opt for a combination of working remotely and working from the office. I think that people will be going back to the office for a part of the week to get in touch with their colleagues and stay at home for the other part to ‘really get things done’, but overall, I believe that working remotely is now an integrated part of working.
Working (very) flexible
Working remotely also opened up another door to working (very) flexible. Flexible working has already had its place in the workplace before, but the COVID-19 crisis and working remotely really accelerated this trend. It is not unusual anymore to receive messages early in the morning or late in the evening, while not being able to reach certain colleagues during the day. This sense of flexibility has opened up a sphere of ‘working a couple of hours here and there’ which means that we can restructure our entire day. What a relief for all those early birds or night owls out there!
Bringing the kids to school? No problem, work when they are to bed in the evening. Tired of recycling socks and in need of a laundry run? Easy, just run it and work a bit overtime. Still have to do groceries for the dinner of tomorrow? Fine, just get up an hour earlier, put in some work, and do groceries during your extended break.
Private and professional colliding
What working remotely and working flexible have caused is that there is not a clear distinction anymore between our private and personal life. You are not walking in an office anymore at 9AM and you are not leaving it anymore after 5PM. That is something people will have to deal with on a mental level, which is easier for some than it is for others. For people who are struggling with this, I think that lot of companies will (or should) move to a model where the teams meet (digitally) in the morning to open up the day and close down the day (digitally) in the afternoon. This brings back a mental sense of opening and closure, clearing up the blurred divide of private and professional life.
Another point that I want to make here is that there will be new models of facility, with options for people who work a lot remotely. In that sense you can think about compensation for the cost of living at home and facilities.
Three cups of coffee a day does not cost a lot, but if you multiply with the number of days in a year, then costs begin to show themselves.
When it comes to facilities you should not only think about laptops and that kind of hardware, but also chairs, tables and ventilation. Basically, everything which turns your living room into an ergonomic working environment. I would argue that employers will also have a stake in this. Their cost of building up a workplace and providing coffee basically stays the same, but their cost of their physical buildings will go down as they can close down offices when people work permanently or flexibly, from home.
One form of impact that I have not heard yet is how this whole COVID-19 crisis will make us reconsider the line between work and holidays. I predict that people will rethink the way that they take holidays and how they plan their holidays, permanently. Firstly, right now, there is the obvious of not taking planes anymore and more regional travelling instead of international travelling.
But I would also argue that also the structure of our holidays will change, moving to being more flexible on holidays. Perhaps you are not able to leave the office for the entire week, take off four entire weeks in the summer, or even miss that one important meeting that distorts your family plans. So why not go to your holiday destination and work for a couple of days, one week of the four in the summer, or attend that one important meeting. I would say that combining work with holidays will become more common and it can provide a possible positive trade-off for employees (as long as they know how to properly balance it).
Let’s talk office
Now that I have discussed the consequences for outside of the office, let’s move on to how this will impact things inside the office. First and foremost, I think that the current pandemic will influence the way we are perceiving as a hygienic working environment.
In this sense you can think about sanitation, disinfection, and ventilation, but also on policies regarding when somebody is considered healthy enough to enter the office (regarding the spread of infections). Most companies right now have a sort of ‘laissez faire’ attitude towards this issue and let employees decide when they deem themselves fit enough to enter the office.
We might move to a scenario where employers more actively encourage employees to stay away from the office when they show symptoms of a disease. Then there is of course the topic of training and education, which will also play a role. New guidelines will require training and education for your staff.
Last but not least, there are already companies who specialize themselves into making virus-free environments, such as the six-feet-office introduced by Cushman & Wakefield. Again, I believe that COVID-19 will have a lasting impression on how we regulate health in the office.
I believe COVID-19 has a significant impact on how we perceive ‘work’ going forward. It has shocked the working world, turned it upside down, and made us realise that there is a contingency (the idea of choice) in what we do. In a last remark, I would add that all of this is just a prelude to much larger changes which will improve the quality of our lives. If working regimes become more flexible to adapt to our preferred lifestyle, then you will notice that:
less and less people press themselves into public transport during rush-hour;
more people will move out from the cities into the countryside to work remotely;
we travel less to work on location (decreasing our environmental footprint);
people can organize their lives better to their own preference;
and this will ultimately benefit our (mental) health and wellbeing as human beings. Therefore, I embrace this change and am looking forward to keep working in the new normal.