When the subject of returning to the office was first brought up several weeks ago as a blog topic, my first reaction was that maybe it was a bit late to be writing about it as much of the country was well into reopening phases. As I write about it now, it seems as if it may be a bit premature as several coronavirus hot spots have reappeared.
In any event, this does point out the uncertainty and unpredictability of the times we now live in. At some point, most of us will in some fashion be going back to work in an office and when it does occur there will be many items to consider.
Adapting to the Change
It will be every bit as odd going back to an office as it was coming to terms with the reality that most of us needed to figure out how to work from home for an extended period. The routine will be different. For many of us, how we exercise, eat and dress will have to change. Commutes will once again become part of daily life. The work environment will also be peculiar at first.
Will we have to wear masks? Is it ok to go into someone’s office for a meeting? How will you feel if someone comes in to see you? Will the break room be open? Can we still celebrate a birthday or a work anniversary? Do you need to maintain social distancing at the printer? What are the guidelines for business travel? Routine tasks will not be routine.
Planning to Go Back
As odd as some of these everyday tasks may be, we will eventually get used to the way we have to work in an office. A bigger problem for many people may be how to deal with a work situation that does not line up with other aspects of life.
For example, our kids may or may not be going back to school in person. Many that do go back will be on a modified schedule. Who will be with them on days they may not be in school in person or get out early? If a grandparent in an at-risk group was the after-school care, is that still an option? How will you feel about going to back to your place of work if there is an at-risk person in your household? These are difficult questions without clear, definitive answers.
Will the Office be Ready for Me?
Much about the novel coronavirus is still unknown. There do seem to be some clear trends emerging. It is easier to get the virus indoors as opposed to outdoors. There is growing sentiment that it is an airborne virus and people seem more likely to get it from aerosols than from surfaces. The longer exposure one has to someone with the virus, the greater chances of getting it. And singing or shouting without social distancing in an enclosed space seems to be an especially efficient way to spread the disease.
Previously, I have been in many meetings in closed conference rooms sitting shoulder to shoulder with my colleagues involved in some spirited discussion of important business topics. I do not foresee this coming back for a long time. These meetings may be virtual even with a re-opened office. Companies will have to look at their space planning. Tall cubes and individual offices may be ripe for a comeback. Buildings will have to take a long look at their HVAC systems. Are they adequate to meet today’s challenges? I would expect that as new offices are built out, we will see quite a bit of innovation in these areas.
There will be a push to hold someone accountable when people get sick after coming back to work. A company could be accused of failing to maintain a clean work environment or of failing to make adequate PPE or sanitizing supplies available. A customer could look to take action if they were infected by a company employee conducting company business. Even if there are legal protections that provide some shield to the company, the damage to the brand could be severe.
It is also not completely clear if liability waivers will be universally enforceable. And many of the protections enacted will likely not protect the employer from negligence. There are currently some state legislatures that are debating increased regulations to shield workers from the virus. The bottom line here is that employers need to make sure they are following proper protocols when bringing people back to work.
COVID-19 will not dominate the evening news forever. There is every hope that by taking protective measures seriously, momentum building on developing a vaccine and learning how we can exist with the virus that the effects of it on our daily lives will begin to diminish. This will not happen overnight.
And likewise, the expectation of going back to the office and everything instantly reverting to how it was is not realistic. Some of the lessons learned about how we work have been eye opening and certain facets of work life will never go back to how they were.
In many cases, this is a good thing. The transition back to the office will be successful if we focus on the same traits that we are often rewarded for having in our businesses – intelligence, innovation and the ability to stick with it. When we are together again, we will eventually get back to being more focused on what someone is saying to us rather than whether they are standing too close when they are saying it.
About the Author
Bill Armstrong oversees the strategic direction, expansion, and operations of all our solutions. Under Bill’s leadership Gava Talent Solutions has expanded to providing services for all major industries and countries and has built one of the largest candidate networks in the industry.