The Post-COVID Workplace: How Will Work Change After the Coronavirus?

Millions of people are now working remotely for the first time. Many won't want to go back to the office when the pandemic is over.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic has affected every workplace in the country in one way or another. Some employers have closed their doors temporarily—and some permanently. Others have asked their employees to work from home, or given extra paid or unpaid leave to employees with health concerns or childcare responsibilities. Many essential businesses, from supermarkets to gas stations to doctors' offices, have remained open but given their employees protective equipment to reduce their chances of contracting the virus.

While the worst of the coronavirus outbreak will (hopefully) be over soon, some of these changes to the workplace could be here to stay. Here are a few ways the post-COVID workplace might be different from what came before.

Increased Remote Work

If it wasn't clear before the pandemic, it certainly is now: Remote work is not for everyone. Of course, everyone loves doing conference calls in their pajamas and no one misses their commute, but some people do miss the camaraderie and buzz of the traditional workplace. In addition, many employees like being able to "leave work at work." As any remote worker can attest, when you work from home, you're always at work.

Still, for every newly remote worker itching to get back to the office, ten more are wondering why they can't work from home all the time. That's why one legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic will be a far greater share of people working remotely—even in industries that might not, at first glance, lend themselves to it.

Take the medical field as an example. "[T]elemedicine is going to be a 'silver lining' from this crisis," Dr. Michael Okun, national medical director of the Parkinson's Foundation, was quoted as saying in a recent article on Medscape. According to the article, telemedicinecaring for patients remotely, often using video conferencing technologyis "well suited for the type of encounter that would normally happen during a regular check-up, such as reviewing symptoms and refilling medications." Dr. Bruce H. Cohen, a pediatric neurologist, told Medscape that "it comes down to patient safety issues. If we can deliver safe medical care using this technology, even if it takes us a while to figure it out, then why not? It's going to save people time and money."

By offering flexible work arrangements, employers not only save vast sums on office space and other overhead, they can also attract and retain the best employees. With the help of videoconferencing software like Skype or Zoom, employees can be just as productive at home as in the office. And all from the comfort of their pajamas.

Expanded Paid Sick Leave

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, no federal law required employers to give any paid sick leave to their employees. (The Family and Medical Leave Act provides up to 12 weeks of leave per year, but it's unpaid.) As the pandemic spread in the United States, many workers who had coronavirus symptoms or who had been exposed to the virus still showed up to work because they couldn't afford to miss a paycheck. The consequences for public health were dire.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which gave employees up to 80 hours of paid sick leave to care for themselves or family members. However, this law took effect more than two months after the COVID-19 disease arrived in the United States. That means during the first critical stages of the pandemic's spread in the United States, much of the workforce couldn't realistically stay home from work.

While the new federal paid sick leave law is set to expire at the end of 2020, it's likely that more and more statesand perhaps even the federal governmentwill provide paid sick leave on public health grounds. Employers have long argued that such a policy is too expensive, but those arguments might not hold sway once the economic costs of the coronavirus outbreak become clear.

Planning for Public Health Emergencies

With the exception of some epidemiologists and public health officials (and Bill Gates), almost no one saw a pandemic of this magnitude coming. While some businesses responded immediately by closing their doors or allowing employees to work from home, many companies refused to adjust their operations at all until forced to do so by government or public pressure. There's little doubt that this complacency accelerated the spread of the disease.

Going forward, businesses large and small will need to have a plan in place in the event of a public health emergency. The next time something like this happens—and there will be a next time—businesses that have planned will act much more swiftly and decisively than those that haven't.

Such a plan might include:

  • maintaining a stock of protective equipment on site, such as gloves, facemasks, and hand sanitizer
  • displaying signs reminding employees of the importance of hand washing
  • periodically running remote working drills, or
  • designing a leave policy that encourages workers to stay home when they're unwell.

It's hard to fault the many businesses that failed to adequately plan for a once-in-a-century pandemic. But those businesses are now on noticethey need to have a plan in place for global pandemics and other public health emergencies.

Health and the Workplace: What's Next?

The coronavirus pandemic changes everything it touchesand it touches everything. Though we can't predict exactly how the American workplace will change after the crisis is over, it's a fairly safe bet that public health and cost considerations will loom large. In all likelihood, that means we'll have more remote working, more generous paid leave, and more efforts to plan for the next public health disaster.