Coronavirus Has Changed Office Life Forever — & That Might Be A Good Thing

Cait Munro

What do you remember about the last day you spent in your office? Before the catastrophic coronavirus pandemic led to the sudden abandonment of those spaces, and taking Zoom calls from the comfort of our beds became a professionally acceptable practice, those of us who worked in offices had dramatically different daily lives. Personally, I’ve thought quite a lot over the last few months about my now-empty workstation. When we all shuffled home that day in early March, none of us had any idea how long we’d be away from the conference rooms and the tiny kitchens with the dirty microwaves and the blasting air conditioning and all the other bittersweet things we’d become accustomed to over the course of our careers. We left papers and documents out. We abandoned calendars and notebooks. I still think about the pile of untouched books and beauty products under my desk — not to mention the team snack drawer left unattended all these long weeks. Now, as offices slowly begin the re-opening process, many people have been asking: When will we return? But, there’s another question to consider: What will we be returning to?

Over the past few months, both the coronavirus pandemic and the protests following the police killing of George Floyd have resulted in a world that often feels wholly different from the one of earlier this year. And while, it’s impossible to predict at this juncture what the true “future of work” will look like, some realities are becoming more clear. For one, it doesn’t look like those of us who can easily work remotely are headed back to the office anytime soon. Remote work is poised to become much more mainstream, as both companies and employees realize its possibilities, and that could mean large-scale changes in things like real estate, family dynamics, politics, and the distribution of wealth across the country.

Let’s be clear, there can be no real silver linings to a crisis that has killed almost 500,000 people globally and resulted in, as of late May, almost 40 million Americans losing their jobs.  However, as we shift the way in which we think about labor, reimagining what we expect people to sacrifice in order to make a living, and what we understand and are willing to accept about how people work best, it is possible that we can conceive of a better future for ourselves, and for generations to come.

The Death Of The Open-Plan Office?

Almost every office I’ve ever been to, whether for a job interview, a visit with a professional acquaintance, or as my own workplace, has had a shortage of conference rooms, or other private places to talk. This is a fact I often joke about with people as we’re en route to whatever makeshift corner of space we can find for a meeting. It’s a flaw inherent to the modern, open-plan office, which has a layout that’s supposed to encourage communication, but that, somehow, offers nowhere to actually sit down and talk. The open-plan office allows managers to keep tabs on their employees’ productivity, but makes it harder for anyone to actually be productive. There have been plenty of studies that bear this out, including an oft-cited one from the Harvard Business School in 2018, which showed open offices actually reduce face-to-face interaction by about 70%, increase the volume of email and electronic messages, and decrease employee productivity. In the context of coronavirus, open-plan offices, especially those where employees are packed tightly together, make it practically impossible to socially distance and contain the spread of germs. 

For many companies, the reality of these spaces may mean keeping the bulk of their employees — especially those who can do their jobs effectively from home — remote until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine, or at least a serious drop in the number of local cases. Companies like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have announced plans to do this until at least early 2021.  

For companies that want to have some employees come back earlier, there’s a push to rejigger offices to allow for more personal space, among other things. A recent New York Times article, “The Pandemic May Mean the End of the Open-Floor Office,” lays out strategies like sneeze guards, bottles of hand sanitizer built into desks, air filters, and an increased reliance on outdoor gathering spaces. The CDC recently recommended even more stringent guidelines for a return to offices, including abolishing communal seating areas, replacing high-touch items like coffee pots and water coolers with single-use versions, and requiring daily temperature checks for workers. And yet, all that may still not be enough to effectively reduce viral transmission. And in cities like New York, where the majority of people commute via public transportation and then often need to endure a crowded elevator ride, whatever an office layout might look like still doesn’t mitigate the other risks associated with leaving one’s house to go to work. 

David Galulo, principal and CEO of the business-centric design firm Rapt Studio, says he’s been having conversations about this with many of his clients. “There’s a lot of discussion about social distancing and diminished density and [air] circulation patterns. The immediate goal is to develop a plan that allows people to come back to work safely.”

There has been some talk about staggering how many people come into an office at a time — some are calling for similar measures in schools to allow students to return to classrooms in the fall. That could mean something like working from home three days a week, and coming into the office for two. Offices would, of course, need to be deep-cleaned between every shift, and the way we use desks might need to change in order to make more room for social-distancing. But having two or three people using the same desk at different times — assuming said desk is properly disinfected between each person — might not be so unappealing if the space wasn’t one you were forced to call home for 40+ hours a week. “If part of your workplace is your home office, where you’re surrounded by your dog and your kids and all of your personal items, maybe it’s less important that, for example, you have the picture of the dog and the kids at the office,” suggests Galulo. 

Galulo doesn’t think we’re seeing the death of the open-plan office, though — and certainly not of offices altogether. “You know, the whole conversation about, ‘do we start building fewer offices? And, is this the final nail in the coffin of the open office?’ I don’t think so,” he says. “I’m a firm believer that the workplace is an important driver of culture. It pulls people together. It reminds them of a shared mission. It reminds them that they belong to something larger than just themselves.”

One way this could happen is through the development of new office technology that will provide the sense of simultaneous privacy and collaboration that has previously eluded us. In 2018, Rapt Studio designed two “cubicles of the future” for a Fast Company series called “Provocation,” one of which actually sounds kind of ideal for social distancing. The idea is this: Each person gets their own cubicle, and underneath each cubicle is a small robot, similar to those Amazon uses to move products in its warehouses, which can move the cubicles around as needed. “If you have a day of heads-down work, you’d get assigned a private cubicle so you can focus. If you have a day full of meetings, and you don’t need private space, your cube combines with other cubes to create a larger space in which to work with your colleagues. The robots shift the office in real time to make this happen,” explains writer Katharine Schwab. If you’re essentially remaining in the same square of space all day, even as that square moves around, it’s likely you’re spreading less germs. It’s also likely you’re getting a lot more done — especially given that you never have to worry about finding and holding down an empty conference room again. 

It’s an out-there concept, but if we’re reimagining the workplace from the top-down — and indeed, we may have to — why not consider how technology and design can aid in constructing an environment that prioritizes human creativity and productivity, rather than one that simply serves to jam the most people into the smallest amount of space?

Remote Work & The Promise Of Flexibility 

On May 12, about 10 weeks after much of Silicon Valley had instructed employees to start working from home, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced via email that staff would be allowed to stay remote “forever,” should their jobs allow for it and should they choose to do so. The announcement made waves online and in the business world, where the whims of big tech tend to have a trickle-down effect on how smaller companies operate. But, it wasn’t actually much of a departure from policies the tech giant already had in place. “We started down this path a couple years ago,” explains Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s Chief Human Resources Officer. “People can work remotely, if they want. They can also change office locations. For us, it was really about talent and optionality and offering a competitive advantage.”

Companies like Twitter, that had already begun to embrace remote work, have obviously seen a much easier transition over the past three months. But even more traditional organizations that once balked at the notion of allowing employees to work from home are finding that it’s really not that bad — even under the hurried, makeshift circumstances through which it has occurred. 

Prior to the pandemic, says Brie Reynolds, a Career Development Manager and Coach at FlexJobs, “The people who really, ultimately make the decision to allow workers to work remotely didn’t see the benefit, because they hadn’t done it themselves. It just wasn’t the way that they were taught and the way they had planned their careers.” But now that office workers at varying levels of power have experienced it and many can point to months of success working remotely, it’s going to be much more difficult for companies to argue it’s not feasible. What’s more, many have come to see that there are long-term benefits for them — remote work often means higher employee satisfaction rates, more competitive hiring pools, and big money saved on office rent and overhead. 

But for companies that do decide to double down on long-term remote work, they’ll have to realize that setting employees up for remote success means much more than handing them a laptop and a Zoom login and wishing them good luck. At Twitter, Tracy Hawkins heads up the Real Estate & Workplace and Remote Experience departments, which means she’s constantly thinking about ways to meaningfully translate the experience of working at Twitter HQ to the folks at home. “It’s looking at all the good things we have and trying to extend them,” she says. “You can’t exactly recreate everything that’s in the office because of the scale of it, but just so that they know that thought and intention has gone into their world, just like it has in an office.”

Perks for remote employees at Twitter include a cultural ambassador program to represent remote teams, a “productivity allowance” that gives remote workers money to furnish a comfortable home office, and a dashboard that allows them to easily request the tech equipment they need, which the company has discussed extending to “things like snacks and beverages.” “Most of all, we’re working with the people who are remote to say, you know, what are your challenges? What you really love about being remote? How can you educate us in the office on better ways to work with you?” says Hawkins.

While some workers may be longing for the camaraderie of a traditional workplace and others crossing their fingers they never have to go back, what most are finding is that some balance of remote and office work is what makes the most sense. “A lot of the discussions we’re having with clients are about, how do you think about the workplace — as in, the actual office — as part of an ecosystem of spaces and tools,” says Galulo. “I think a lot of people are appreciating the fact they’ve now gained an hour or two a day back [by eliminating commute time]. If I can do that on those days that I don’t really need to be in the workplace, but the workplace is still there for those times that I do, for those important gathering moments where I really need to see my team, then that’s ideal.”

What Does It All Mean?

It’s both maddening and quintessentially American that it took a global health emergency of catastrophic proportions to force companies to engage with the reality that so much about the modern workplace is — and has long been — broken. But regardless of how we got here, the answers we come up with today could have huge effects on the world we live in tomorrow.

The more companies invest in remote work, for example, the more workers may look around and realize there’s no longer a reason for them to remain in overcrowded, overpriced urban areas like New York City and San Francisco. Already, talk of families and young professionals leaving New York for more socially distant pastures has emerged online, inspiring Goodbye to All That-esque Twitter missives and equal parts concern and indifference from those who have chosen to steadfastly remain. Personally, in just the past week, I’ve had two sets of friends announce they’re planning to leave NYC — for New Jersey and South Carolina, respectively. 

If people can move to, say, South Carolina on a Silicon Valley salary, that’s going to have a huge impact on their new chosen community, in both potentially positive and negative ways. While there’s always the legitimate fear that newcomers may breed gentrification, they can also provide struggling local economies with a boost. (This could also have implications for the political sphere: If left-leaning urbanites begin to decamp to more rural areas, or states that are historically “purple” or “red,” that could prompt a shakeup in local, state, and national elections.)

Skilled workers moving from big cities to suburban and rural areas is one thing, but if more companies begin actually hiring remote workers — as opposed to just letting employees they already have start working remotely — that means people living in those areas have increased opportunities for employment, too. And that could be an important step in lessening economic inequality across the country. 

“We’ve been partnering with local economic development organizations to bring remote jobs to rural places that do not have a job market locally,” says Reynolds of FlexJobs. “And now, we’re seeing in these communities, when even a handful of people get a really good, well-paying job, they’re able to do so much within their community, and it becomes a ripple effect. Any real remote work on a large scale definitely has great implications in terms of the distribution of wealth, bringing more equality to the workforce, and letting people live and work in ways that are more balanced for them.”

That being said, not all companies determine pay for remote workers in the same way. According to Reynolds, there are three common ways remote salaries are determined: where the company is located, where the individual employee is located, or the national average for the job title. “Some companies will have different salaries for people doing the same type of work, but who live in different places with different salary levels,” she adds.

In a statement that’s since been widely circulated on social media, Facebook recently revealed that “employees who wish to work remotely, and are approved to do so, will be paid based on their new location,” adding that the company will “localize everybody’s comp by January 1,” and that by the end of the year, employees have to either return to the Bay Area, or let the company know where they plan to be working from going forward. CEO Mark Zuckerberg added that they plan to ramp up remote hiring. 

One thing companies looking to invest in remote work have to contend with are employment and tax laws, which vary from state to state and can get complicated if people are based all over the country. Sometimes, that means companies stick to hiring only in certain states, or even just in the same state where their headquarters are. 

While remote work has the potential to bring about some much-needed changes in our society, from allowing families more time together to bringing much-needed opportunities to economically depressed regions, a huge number of Americans who don’t work in offices won’t have the luxury of doing their jobs remotely. And, these are often the workers who are already the most vulnerable. If we’re going to engage in a conversation about how to make life better, safer, and easier for office workers, we must be willing to have the same conversation about workers in service and other industries. The coronavirus pandemic has made abundantly clear the failings of the gig economy, and the economic precariousness under which so many people live their lives. There’s not an easy, one-size-fits-all solution for any of these problems, but now is a potent opportunity to push for better working conditions for everyone, not just those of us privileged enough to do our jobs from desks — wherever those desks may be.

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