The lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on work culture will take some time to assess. We tend to overestimate changes when we are in the middle of them due to the closeness of the experience. Habits are learned over a lifetime and it takes more than a few weeks to change them. For instance, after the World Trade Center bombings, there was a lot of talk how business travel would be reduced over time because we could not fly for a short period of time. In fact, the change was just the opposite—due to demand, airlines eventually built planes specifically to handle more business travel.
There is plenty of talk about how the pandemic will lead to more telecommuting (something we also heard after 9/11). While it might not be to the extent that some predict, I think there are some reasons why we might see a modest increase in people working from home once this passes:
1) This time, it impacts managers. In the past, management was one of the biggest resistors to allowing people to work from home. They imagined that productivity would plummet. Given that technology barriers to working at home have come down and their own experiences, more managers may become more open to people working from home. Change is easier when you get to explore it rather than just think about it.
2) Somewhat related to the above, digital non-natives are living a bit more in the world of millenials and Gen Z. Yes, you can spend most of your day online without the sky falling. Older workers who always thought they needed the discipline of going into the office everyday are discovering that might not be the case. Oh, and commuting really is a miserable experience that people will be loath to return to.
3) Going back to the office may soon be considered the change and not the normal. For people who have been working remotely, it could be months (no, I’m not thinking years) before their state/country/workplace allows them the opportunity to go back to their office. Even if the building opens tomorrow, social distancing guidelines may mean that many people will still have to work from home due to space limitations. They will develop good work habits from home. These employees are going to be reluctant to go back to the office.
A contrary viewpoint that a friend expressed to me is that younger workers may miss the daily face-to-face work interactions. Now that all of their lives are spent online, they may crave being with people at least a few times a week. We’ll have to see about that.
There are many considerations of managing a workforce where fewer people are visible each day. For instance, will recognition and promotions be available equally to in-house workers and telecommuters? There may also be recruiting and hiring issues as well. But, those issues are for a future post.