The Workplace May Change, But By Whom?

The same people who created a broken system are being asked to imagine a new one.

We are in the middle of a massive, unplanned experiment. While 30-some states this week are starting down their plans to “reopen” their economic engines, those plans seem to be mostly about retail and manufacturing operations. White collar, information-economy businesses may have closed their offices but the staff (at least in part) continued to work, albeit from home, during the stay-at-home orders put in place by governors and other lawmakers.

Regardless of what kind of business is being discussed, the question of late has been How will the experiences of the Covid-19 outbreak and the measures taken as a result influence the future of the workplace?

For those in retail, the answer seems to be “wear masks and wash your hands” while companies may take this opportunity to explore automation that would human-proof their businesses from future disruptions.

For those in manufacturing, especially the meat-packing employees designated as essential, the answer seems to be “not much will change” while groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce want safety guidelines to be optional and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants companies to be shielded from liability when workers get sick.

For those working office jobs, the future remains unclear at the moment.

According to a recent MIT report, anyone who *can* work from home is currently doing so. Currently that stands at about 34 percent, a drastic increase from the ~4 percent who were doing so this time last year. And a number of studies like this have begun showing a large percentage of people would now like to continue this work from home situation even after their offices reopen. They don’t miss their commutes and are valuing how that time is better spent sleeping, with family, getting more work done or simply relaxing in a way they couldn’t previously.

There are, to be sure, some who miss the office environment. For others, though, it’s important to remember that offices are seen as toxic, where they have to put on false personas in order to get along with coworkers, try to work through the harassment and otherwise experience numerous distractions that keep them from focusing on the task at hand, impacting not only their workplace productivity but also their mental and emotional health.

As we inch (however wisely) toward a situation where more and more offices say they’re reopening, the kinds of changes they have in mind are becoming clear. Many stories have mentioned employers may stagger working hours to avoid clustering people and spread out desks in order to prevent the spread of illness along with requiring temperature checks at the front door, masks to be worn and so on. Many have speculated this will mean the end of the open office concept, but it’s hard to figure out how that would work given the desire to increase the physical distance between people, not just put up a faux wall between them.

What seems to be missing from the conversation are more substantive, systemic changes that might make situations like this less disruptive to everyone involved. Specifically these four things:

Actual remote work policies

A 2018 study by Upwork showed only half the companies that had remote workers actually had a formal policy addressing the practice, and recent history showed lots of firms scrambling to adjust to a fully or mostly-offsite workforce. If firms were to put in the legwork now and not only craft policies but get their technical house in order to support such efforts it would increase people’s ability to do so dramatically. Those policies need to address at least these three points:

  1. Flexible schedules: Not everyone can work from 8am to 5pm every day, nor should they be expected to. Most everyone has other concerns, be they childcare, looking in on other family, doctor’s visits, grocery store runs or what have you. Often these need to be attended to during what are called “business hours” and that’s alright. Let people do their work when they can or are able to.
  2. Communication channels: Sure, you can setup Slack or Zoom or Google Meet or any of the other options that have come into being that are additive to email and phone, but you also have to specify how and when they’re to be used. All have the potential to be abused, and the expectation to be in constant contact can be burdensome on many people.
  3. Technical connections: Make sure everyone knows how to access shared networks, how to keep in touch with team members and more. These arrangements need to be especially careful when addressing whatever digital divide might exist at home and ensure that everyone is able to participate in a remote work arrangement, not just those at the top of the economic ladder.

Real sick time benefits

It would be great to say this goes without saying, but apparently that’s not the case. Offering employees of all kinds – full- and part-time, hourly or salaried – actual health benefits that include a good amount of available sick time would be a big help in avoiding the kind of seismic disruption currently being experienced. Those with sick days have more freedom to stay home when they’re not feeling well and therefore are less likely to spread whatever they have to their coworkers. Stay home, get better, come back to work when you’re well. It’s not hard.

Focus on accomplishment, not face time

Within many corporate cultures there’s an emphasis on people being seen by higher ups, the feeling being that mere visibility is a proxy for productivity. But that kind of presentism can cause more problems than it solves not only as it relates to people coming to work sick, but it can disproportionately favor those who choose to come into the office over those who work from home or elsewhere. Employees that come into the office are frequently given more promotions, are rated more highly on performance reviews, get more prestigious assignments and other favorable treatment.

Rewarding employees for the work they get done, not the amount of time they were physically present in an arbitrary office would be a welcome change.

It All Comes Down to Productivity

Productivity rates go up when people have the flexibility to more easily mesh their work lives with their personal lives, as well as when they don’t have to waste hours each day on commuting.

Productivity rates go up when people feel free to take time off when they’re sick, recovering faster when they don’t have to also worry about logging in to work much less coming into the office.

Productivity rates go up when they feel they are being rewarded based on their achievements and skills as opposed to their physical proximity to the boss’s office.

What’s been disappointing over the last months is that while there have been discussions of open office plans disappearing and plexiglass shields being installed between desks there have been precious few about the topics listed above. That means we’re not getting into the real issues, focusing instead of superficial changes that amount to little.

It’s a result of the same people who created the current system being in charge of designing what might be coming in the near future. Whether it’s a disconnect of priorities, a lack of understanding as to what the real issues are or a vested interest in maintaining the status quo it’s hard to know. For whatever reason, it doesn’t seem that substantive changes are coming to the workplace, even in the aftermath of a society-changing event like the one we’re in the middle of living through.