Updated: Aug 4, 2021
13 ways the coronavirus pandemic could forever change the way we work
In only a few months, the coronavirus pandemic has upended the daily lives of people around the world. For Americans, the economic impact of the virus has led to new categorizations of “essential” workers, a large-scale move to remote work and skyrocketing unemployment that is expected to continue increasing.
With more than 30 million people filing for unemployment in the past six weeks, the U.S. is predicted to experience a coronavirus-induced recession through 2021.
And amid stay-at-home orders across the country, office workers have ditched their daily commutes to work from dining room tables, couches and beds in their own homes. Many may find themselves in this situation for the long haul, as businesses struggle to find a path forward while restrictions slowly lift.
But what other changes will we see in the coming months and years? CNBC Make It spoke to futurists, employment experts, CEOs, designers and more to find out how the pandemic could forever transform the way we work.
1. Working in an office could become a status symbol
Following the pandemic, it’s likely that more Americans will split their time between working from home and from a corporate office, says Brent Capron, the design director of interiors at architecture firm Perkins and Will’s New York studio.
“People will still gather for work,” he says. “But the amount of time you work in proximity with others, and what your work week looks like — I see that to be the biggest cultural shift moving forward.”
Corporate headquarters may become a status symbol for the companies that still have the budget and a workforce big enough to warrant pricey real estate in a major city.
2. Most meetings could be replaced by email and IM
Expect your post-pandemic work calendar to contain fewer meetings overall, says Nadjia Yousif, managing director and partner of Boston Consulting Group’s London office.
The pandemic has been a technological equalizer of sorts, she says, where people previously unaccustomed to using tech tools in the workplace have had no choice but to adapt. And in some cases, workers are becoming more efficient.
For team members who no longer work together in a central office, phone calls and meetings may move to video. This could help to build trust among workers who can’t interact in person, Yousif says.
3. It could be the end of business travel as we know it
As travel of all kinds is halted, telecommuting is adopted at scale and companies attempt to cut costs and balance their budgets, many experts believe business trips as we know them will be a thing of the past.
“I don’t think [business travel] is ever going to be exactly the same,” says Gary Leff, a travel industry expert and author of the blog View from the Wing.
Changing consumer preferences and greater interest in social distancing will limit large group events such as conferences and conventions for the foreseeable future, says Leff, and permanently decrease the volume of business travel.
4. Office buildings could become ‘elaborate conference centers’
With the office building recast as the ultimate status symbol, its main purpose could shift.
“Does office space strictly become elaborate conference centers?” asks Capron. He predicts office buildings of the future may become facilities to gather, while focused work is done remotely.
Beyond that, the open office floor plan will likely stick around. Despite criticism that they kill productivity, it’s likely companies will still use the layout in an effort to lower real estate costs.
Open layouts will change, however: Desks could become spaced out, partitions could go up, cleaning stations stocked with hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes will become the norm, and workers may seek out spaces for focused work, such as privacy booths. Capron stops short of saying cubicles will make a comeback.
Agile workspaces with unassigned seating will decline in popularity. Workers will want the security and control of having a personal space they come to every day or every few days and can clean frequently.
5. Mandatory on-the-job medical screening could become the norm
Health and legal experts predict that on-the-job medical screening, such as temperature checks and antibody tests, will be a reality for those who return to work in the months ahead.
And in many cases it’s already happening: To combat the spread of coronavirus among essential workers, some of the biggest employers in the country, including Amazon, Walmart, Home Depot and Starbucks have begun taking the temperatures of their employees before they are allowed to work.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, has indicated that an “immunity certificate” program is “being discussed.”
“It might actually have some merit under certain circumstances,” he told CNN.
6. Coworkers could become even closer
If there’s one bright spot to how the pandemic will impact the future of work, it’s that it could strengthen the personal relationships we form with colleagues.
“For a long time, we’ve probably taken for granted the ability to see our coworkers every day and maybe didn’t realize how valuable that was,” says Lakshmi Rengarajan, a workplace connection consultant formerly of WeWork and Match.com. “I think teams will be a lot closer when they’re able to move back into the workplace.”
“There will probably be fewer sad desk lunches,” he says. Workplace friendships could flourish among colleagues who relied on each other during the pandemic and got to know one another on a more personal level.
But despite more in-person interaction among colleagues, handshakes are on their way out. Fauci recently advised that handshaking needs to stop even when the pandemic ends, and other health experts agree.
7. Fashion-ready face masks could become a wardrobe staple
Though business casual will likely remain the norm in offices, two new types of apparel could also spring from the pandemic: The rise of work-from-home office wear, and face masks as a socially mandated accessory.
Workers who video conference frequently may retool their wardrobe to be camera-friendly — more bold colors, large-scale patterns and clean lines; fewer neutrals, small prints and frills.
Wearing a face mask around the office may become commonplace, especially in bigger companies with more workers sharing tight quarters.
8. Standard 9-to-5 office hours could become a thing of the past
As professionals juggle the demands of work life and home life all in the same place, many employers have relaxed rules about workers starting and ending their days at a set time.
“I think you’ll see a new norm around trust and respect” in the ways employers manage their staff moving forward, says career coach Julie Kratz. With many employees successfully working from home now, it will be a lot harder for employers to deny flexibility around work hours and work settings, she explains.
To maintain a sense of structure, Kratz says employers will have to set expectations for when they need everyone in the office or online for staff meetings and other team activities.
9. Home office stipends could become a common perk
If working remotely becomes the norm, then home office stipends could become a common workplace perk, says bestselling author and futurist Jacob Morgan.
In order for remote work to be effective, employers will have to provide employees with the resources needed to be productive, he explains. This includes a small stipend that will allow workers to “customize their space in a way they think is sufficient.”
10. The workplace could become more equitable for women
With many workplaces now being forced to operate remotely, long-term flexibility could be here to stay, allowing more women to remain in the workforce while balancing home and work life, says Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute.
A more flexible work culture could also create more equity at home as both men and women are able to spend quality time with their families.
“You’re going to see more men starting to want these [flexible options] too, assuming they enjoyed the time at home with their kids,” Kratz says.
11. Middle management positions could be cut forever
In the months and years ahead, we could continue to see a hollowing out of middle management.
“A lot of organizations are going to say, ‘Wait a minute, we don’t really need all these layers of middle management that we had in the past,’” Sculley, currently chairman of pharmacy benefit management company RxAdvance, tells CNBC Make It.
Others are more optimistic that the demand for top-tier managers will rebound once the pandemic subsides because organizations will want to emphasize productivity.
12. Automation could be accelerated
While futurists have long warned of “job-stealing robots,” the coronavirus pandemic has heightened fears that automation will replace the jobs of workers. Because of social distancing measures, many organizations — from restaurants to retailers — have been forced to find ways to operate with as few employees physically present as possible. An added bonus: Robots and algorithms can’t get sick.
For years, companies have been working toward automating repetitive jobs through algorithms that can complete administrative tasks, robots that can streamline manufacturing and drones that can deliver goods. And researchers have found that this kind of automation is more quickly adopted during economic downturns.
13. There could be an increased demand to close the digital divide
Roughly 21 million Americans lack access to the internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission, with some reports estimating this number to be even higher. This means millions of workers, regardless of industry, are simply unable to work remotely.
Though conversations about the digital divide have taken place for years now, the coronavirus pandemic has put an even greater spotlight on this gap, says Kathryn de Wit, manager of broadband research initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts.
“We’re seeing local, federal and state leaders step up with these temporary solutions like putting Wi-Fi on buses and [giving] out hotspots,” she says. “Those are good temporary solutions and absolutely needed, but broadband is infrastructure. It takes time and resources to build. If we want to make sure that every American can work, socialize and learn from home, then we need to start having a discussion about what a long-term solution actually looks like.”