By Shelby Matsumura
In reflecting on how much our world has changed since January 2020, it’s crazy to recognize the substantial impact COVID-19 has had on all of our lives. We do not socialize the same, we do not eat at restaurants the same, and we definitely do not perform our work the same. Many workplaces have gone virtual and employees everywhere have juggled home life and remote work. With all of these changes and uncertainties, the future of the workplace may seem precarious. However, as a society, we have also seen some positive changes in how the workplace functions as a result of this pandemic, and some of these changes are likely to turn into long-lasting trends that will have an important impact on how we work. COVID-19 has affected most aspects of our daily lives, but it might just be the catalyst that will change the workplace forever and for the better. Here are 4 ways in which the Coronavirus will affect positive change for the workplace.
1. More Opportunities for Remote Work
According to Gallup, about 6 in 10 managers currently report that the people they manage are allowed to work from home. Among those 6 in 10, 55% of the managers say that once government restrictions are lifted and kids go back to school, the experience of COVID-19 will change their remote work policy. This pandemic has demonstrated that plenty of employees can be productive while working from home, without being under the watchful eye of an in-person manager. Working from home has also helped decrease the financial burdens facing many businesses because they are not paying traditional brick and mortar-type fees, such as rent for a commercial office space or employee travel costs. In fact, as remote work becomes more normalized, we are likely to see companies open regional hubs or provide access to co-working spaces wherever their workers are concentrated, in lieu of having the majority of the workforce at one central office.
The concept of remote work doesn’t just mean working from home; however, it also means flexible work schedules. As we have seen during this pandemic, it’s challenging for employees to stick to the traditional 9-to-5 structure when they are balancing both their home life and their professional responsibilities. Especially with some schools re-opening, those early hours of the day can be quite busy for working parents. So, having the opportunity to schedule work around the daily needs of their household will help many employees achieve a better work-life balance. Further, forcing employees to adhere to the 9-to-5 schedule without taking into account their personal situations may have worked prior to COVID-19, but is unlikely to continue as a common practice after employees and managers alike have learned the value of flexibility.
Thus, moving towards this business model where remote work is a more readily available option would not only be beneficial for employees, but also for the businesses and the upper management teams who employ these strategies. According to Business Because, Emma Parr, a professor of human resource management at Cranfield School of Management, explains how before the pandemic, productivity was measured by attendance and whether employees were sitting at their cubicles. But, remote work has taken the emphasis off attendance and placed it on employee output, where working virtually has made it more obvious when employees have not met their objectives for the day because they have nothing to deliver. As a result, we have seen how remote work can actually improve employee output and create a culture where hard work is recognized over physical attendance.
This paradigm shift will lend itself to a new norm that values trust and respect in the workplace, where managers will have to trust that their employees are continuing to perform quality work even in the comfort of their homes. Julie Kratz, a career coach, recommends maintaining a sense of structure by having employers set expectations for when they need everyone online for staff meetings or other team activities. If employees are working flexible hours, it’s also crucial for employees and managers to communicate with each other and emphasize that no one is expected to respond to emails and messages at all hours of the day. Katz affirms that “it’s not about throwing out all the rules, but it’s about letting people co-create them.” You can read more from Julie Katz on CNBC.
Finally, as remote work becomes a more popular benefit, it is important for small business owners to take the lessons they have learned from this pandemic and to apply them to a virtual work setting. Employers should strive to not lose personal touch with their employees, remain flexible with scheduling and technology, and to administer telework policies consistently and fairly. Any policies that have a negative or disparate impact on legally protected groups can increase exposure to discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
2. Better Technological Literacy in an Increasingly Virtual World
If remote work becomes the new normal, then employees will see more virtual conferencing and fewer in-person meetings. Before the pandemic, programs such as Zoom and Slack were somewhat popular but not as commonplace as they are today. Fast Company likened these platforms to social networks rather than enterprise communication tools because a Slack message or an invite to a video call prompts much faster and more efficient conversation compared to traditional email. This trend towards more immediate means of communications has skyrocketed since the pandemic and with more people working from home, we are likely to see the adoption of faster, more efficient tools at a record pace. For example, from 2015-2020, Slack went from 1 million to 10 million users. But, in a matter of weeks in March 2020, Slack added 2.5 million users and is still growing rapidly.
This shift towards using these programs and applications so regularly has also helped increase technological literacy on a global scale. We can each remember a time where we had to teach a friend or a family member about how to use Zoom. But now, it is so popular and so commonplace that many workers who once struggled with learning these new programs now understand Zoom and other similar video conferencing applications. Nadjia Yousif, the managing director and partner of Boston Consulting Group’s London office, explained, “People have been more patient in learning new technologies and engaging with them, simply because they’ve had to. I think those best practices will live on. I think we’re all developing new muscles to work virtually.” Thus, this pandemic has been somewhat of a technological equalizer where people who were previously unaccustomed to using tech tools in the workplace have had no choice but to adapt, helping many workers become more efficient.
Some of the most useful apps that have gained notoriety during the pandemic are Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, and AlertMedia (an app that can send out a text message to an entire workforce). To learn more about what kind of applications may best assist your business, check out this list from Business Insider that shares which apps have seen the most downloads during the COVID-19 pandemic.
3. Access to Personal, More Holistic Employee Benefits
The type of employment benefits offered to employees are also likely to change and become more personalized due to the Coronavirus. Workers will be more likely to embrace programs that support their physical, emotional, and financial wellness. For example, one such benefit that employers may consider implementing is childcare accommodations for their employees. In the past, finding childcare was solely the employee’s responsibility, but with many children being homeschooled as a result of COVID-19, employees and employers alike have struggled to find appropriate childcare that will allow them to work effectively. As a result, business owners are likely to understand how valuable something like childcare accommodations would be as an employment benefit even after the pandemic ends. To learn more about childcare as an employment benefit, you can check out a previous article of mine, “Dear Small Business Owners, Mom and Dad Need Help,” here.
Another benefit that has been more widely implemented are stipends to help employees create the best at-home work environment they can. This stipend can be used to get the necessary supplies for their workspace, whether that be office supplies or snacks. However, as the Coronavirus has had a financial impact on every business, some employers may be wondering if they have the funds to provide their employees with such a stipend. But, an interesting statistic that business owners should consider is how on average, employers that allow employees to work from home part-time save around $11,000 per year for each employee working remotely, according to research-based consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics. So, the stipend provided by employers to help employees work remotely will not only be financially productive in the long run but will also buy loyalty from employees who know you care about them and the ergonomics of their home office situations.
For employers to keep up with this trend, they will have to offer the benefits employees need in a manner that operates within the new budgetary constraints resulting from COVID-19. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the best way to approach this issue is by taking stock and reassessing current benefit plans, preparing workers for 2021, and identifying new employee priorities. For example, if your staff is likely to continue to work from home, onsite benefits may no longer be needed. Instead, employers could divert the resources from these onsite benefits to invest in remote learning or holding online social hours to keep team members connected. Regardless of which strategy is employed, business owners will need to find new ways to deliver benefits to employees’ homes.
As a piece of advice from SHRM to small business owners, companies should formalize what specifically they are willing and able to do for employees during these types of pandemic-like events. This plan should address questions such as whether carriers will allow employers to keep people on their health plans following a furlough or whether an employer can conduct a modified open enrollment so workers can switch to a less expensive plan, add or adjust dependents, and make other changes to their health plan choices. As the type of employment benefits change, it’s crucial that small business owners plan for these unanticipated events by including critical HR functions and employee benefits programs in business-continuity and emergency-response plans, according to Tami Simon, Senior Vice President at the consulting firm Segal in Washington, D.C.
4. Disaster Preparedness
At the beginning of 2020, none of us could have ever guessed that a disaster, like the Coronavirus, would have disrupted our world as much as it has. According to a study conducted by SHRM, almost two-thirds of employers had an emergency preparedness plan prior to the pandemic. But of those, more than half failed to cover communicable diseases. As a result of COVID-19, more businesses are likely to develop an in-depth plan that will address not only disaster preparedness, but pandemic preparedness. If businesses continue to meet in brick-and-mortar buildings, then any shared spaces will likely have features like touchless fixtures, door sensors, automatic sinks and soap dispensers, and maybe even voice-activated elevator banks. Nevertheless, business owners will be much more intentional in developing an emergency preparedness plan that’s rich in lessons learned from this pandemic.
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