Not just different. Maybe better, too.
I’m not a fan of the phrase “the new normal.” But COVID-19 has reshaped our world, and “the old normal” of our office workplace is never coming back.
The transformation of our work environment will be profound. Even as we arc the availability of COVID-19 vaccines, and people clamor to relieve their cabin fever, business-as-usual will not return in its previous form. The changes will be driven by several factors:
NEW PERCEPTIONS ABOUT THE ROLE OF THE OFFICE
The pandemic has created an Earth-sized work-from-home test site, and the shift forced upon the corporate world has upended traditional thinking about the role of the office.
For years, employees have wanted more flexibility in where and when they work, but managers have worried that workers will spend their days playing Minecraft and bingeing “Great British Bake Off” as soon as they are out of sight. The pandemic has shown that’s not what happens, and with that knowledge, companies are rethinking how office space should be used in the future.
In the past it was generally assumed that we attend the office for eight-plus hours a day, five days a week, and that’s where the work happens. The pandemic has taught us that a lot of jobs don’t require full-time office attendance. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 56% of U.S. workers have jobs that can be done from home, at least partially. The office of the future will be more about collaboration, brainstorming sessions and multi-team projects that benefit from (at least occasional) face-to-face work.
Most people like working from home. McKinsey research found that 80 percent of workers preferred it, and 69 percent said that they were equally or more productive when doing so.
The main reasons people like to work from home are:
- No commute (50%)
- Improved work-life balance (21%)
- Flexible schedule (18%)
Companies want to be ready to respond to another potential health crisis. Much as architects and engineers design buildings for the next 100-year flood or earthquake, they must now design for the next 100-year pandemic. The good news is that these changes will also limit the transmission of “traditional” illnesses like the flu, which in the U.S. costs roughly $30 billion in direct medical expenses and lost productivity annually.
We’ll be seeing some new gizmos. To keep workers safe and, importantly, feeling safe, look for some of these when you get back to the office:
Intelligent UV Disinfection - Think of a Roomba with a terrifying virus-killing light on top. New robotic systems use UV-C light to disinfect entire offices while they are unoccupied. They can coordinate with occupancy sensors, motion detectors and smart locks to ensure safe operation (UV light is harmful to humans as well as pathogens).
Low-Touch Environmentsm - Right now, just pushing the elevator button can be scary. Post-COVID offices will use connected devices, sensors, speech recognition, AI and apps to create spaces where doors, lighting, heating and cooling, touchscreen directories and more will be controlled without the need to touch surfaces.
Occupancy Sensors & People Counting - When offices reopen, it will be a lower capacity, so we'll see more devices that allow for easy monitoring of occupancy levels and ensure that safe social distancing is possible.
Air Purification - It’s likely we’ll see an increase in the use of HEPA filters, which capture up to 99.9995% of particles the size of bacteria and viruses.
Materials - Expect to see more copper (it has antimicrobial properties), and easily cleanable, smoother surfaces.
Working from home saves money for both employers and employees. According to Global Workplace Analytics, a company can save $11,000 a year for each employee who works from home half-time, due to real estate reductions, increased productivity and satisfaction and reduced absenteeism. And if companies decide to greatly reduce their office footprint in light of new flexible work policies, the savings will be enormous.
The savings for the employee are impressive too—between $2,500 and $4,000 annually, primarily from commuting costs, parking, and food.
You’ve likely heard that some of America’s biggest companies are already planning to continue flexible working arrangements for their employees.
Facebook has said that as many as half of their staff could be working remotely in the next five to 10 years. Twitter will allow some of its employees to keep working from home indefinitely. Square, Shopify, Slack and other major tech firms agree: there are huge benefits to continuing the flexibility that we’ve learned to embrace this year.
But there are still uncharted waters ahead. Companies will need to figure out how best to support employees when they work at home—helping create a productive home workspace, dealing with the very real threat of potential loneliness, associated mental health problems, and helping with issues such as childcare. These in addition to the challenges of employees being able to access coaching, networking and development opportunities that are essential for engagement and career advancement.
Long-term virtual work will even cause companies to revisit their compensation practices. For example, Zillow is figuring out what to do if someone utilizing their new flexible work policies decides to move to somewhere with a significantly lower cost-of-living. Do you keep your Chicago-based salary if you now telecommute from rural Nebraska? Or do cost-of-living adjustments—up or down—no longer play a role in setting compensation for remote jobs.
We at HMS are planning for the future and looking at all of these issues and innovations, so we’ll remain strong for our customers and their constituents.
It's going to be a whole new world, not just a “new normal.” It’s going to be exciting, interesting, challenging, and in the end it’ll be better for both employees and employers. And, on a grander scale, better for our industry and the healthcare consumers we support.
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