Career Advice

How the Pandemic May Change Office Culture Forever

Erin Bunch

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Even if COVID-19 has not compromised your health or that of your loved ones, the pandemic has almost certainly impacted your life in a number of ways. For many professionals, that includes the way work looks. On the most basic level, COVID-19 has rendered the physical office a risky landscape for virus spread, and as a result, research shows most employed office workers have worked remotely during at least some fraction of the past months in quarantine.

This setup is inclusive of perks and disadvantages alike. On the positive side, time-sucking commutes are not really a thing for non-essential workers able to log on remotely, leaving more time for sleep (unless you have young kids, of course); waist-down attire is basically irrelevant; lunch and happy-hour money may be getting saved; and working hours may feel efficient without co-worker distractions (again, unless you’re simultaneously acting as a caretaker to children or anyone else). On the flip side, boundaries between work time and personal time may feel blurred, potentially leading to longer work hours; employees being isolated from one another opens an increased risk for loneliness; and without office infrastructure and routines in place, some may find working to be more difficult.

This specific situation of working amid a pandemic isn’t forever, though. Still, even after offices are deemed a safe space for non-essential workers to resume business as usual, experts predict that many aspects of post-pandemic office culture will remain different in a number of ways.

Below, find 6 ways experts predict office culture post-pandemic will be changed forever

1. Flexibility will increase, resulting in easier work-life balance

Working from home offers greater employee autonomy, and Cara Silletto, president of Crescendo Strategies, a consulting firm focused on employee retention, predicts that because of this, many professionals may seek WFH flexibility even after it’s safe to return to the office. “[During lockdown], we got past a lot of the technology barriers that employers clung to in the past [as reasons for not exploring remote flexibility], and so the employees are asking, ‘Why can’t I work from home? What other excuses do you have?'” she says.

Many employers are responding more positively to the WFH setup than they have in the past, too. “[Organizations are] finding that employees can be productive outside of the traditional office environment,” says Sharlyn Lauby, president of consulting firm ITM, Inc, which focuses on workplace training solutions. In fact, some workers may even be more productive, given the research that open-office setups can be a productivity-killer, laden with distractions. Plus, adds Joseph Pope, VP of Human Resources at Goodwill San Antonio, there’s a financial benefit to be had for employers who need less physical space for their teams. Pope’s company finds the prospect of downsizing office space appealing, and he predicts there won’t be a 100 percent return to in-office work, even when it’s feasible and safe to do so.

In fact, several companies—including Twitter, Facebook, and even Nationwide Insurance—have already made WFH a permanent arrangement; however, Silletto says, this autonomy-improving (and cost-saving) approach isn’t without downsides. For example, some employees’ home situations may not be ideal as workplaces. Others may find the arrangement to be isolating. In light of these realities, it’s Silletto’s hope that employers will convene with individual employees for feedback in order to create a flexible solution that will benefit the most people, whether that means in-office and remote flexibility, certain in-office days, or otherwise.

Whatever the exact setup may be, the experts agree the focus on flexibility can yield positive results for all involved. Bruce Daisley, workplace culture expert and host of the podcast Eat Sleep Work Repeat, says surveys show that most workers don’t want to go back full-time, but do want to see their colleagues more often. “We do want to return to seeing and being around people, we just don’t want it all of the time,” he says.

2. Workers will be more disconnected, so employers will get more creative

As Silletto mentions above, a downside of flexibility is that workers may find themselves more isolated, which can affect both their individual well-being and larger company culture. Even those who don’t have the specific challenges of these Goodwill employees are struggling with the circumstances of 2020, however, and being isolated certainly doesn’t help. “A sense of isolation, especially when people live alone, has no doubt had an impact on people’s well-being,” says Daisley. “Even introverts get energy from other people.” This can be especially problematic if you consider that it’s not as easy for people to make IRL social plans after work hours as it was in pre-pandemic times, which means that entire days may be spent without in-person human interaction.

“Without the opportunity to come into an office, people’s social capital erodes, and their connections with others are reduced, resulting in more emotional strain, loneliness, mental health issues and less opportunities to grow and learn from others,” says Tracy Brower, PhD, sociologist and author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work, which focuses on work-life balance. She also predicts companies will build out or increase programing and support offered to employees. “Whether it’s skill development, enrichment classes, or coaching, companies have begun offering more, and this will continue,” she says. “People need a sense of purpose, and connection with their colleagues and the greater work community if they are to do their best work and be most engaged.”

“Whether it’s skill development, enrichment classes, or coaching, companies have begun offering more. People need a sense of purpose, and connection with their colleagues, and the greater work community if they are to do their best work and be most engaged.” —Tracy Brower, PhD, sociologist

At the beginning of quarantine, Daisley says these team-building efforts looked like a lot of Zoom happy hours or run clubs, which initially garnered enthusiasm but eventually fizzled out. “We tried a lot of substitute activities at the start but then abandoned them because they didn’t feel as effective [as in-person events],” he says. “I’ve not heard anything yet where people have said, ‘We’ve got it, we’ve definitely got the answer.'”

And companies will need solutions not just for bonding and fostering a sense of culture but also for engendering creativity. “People may be less innovative since they can’t come together with others to build ideas, generate new thinking, or solve problems together,” says Dr. Brower.

3. The role of manager will evolve

The uptick in remote working and probable resulting shifts to work environments will likely have implications on what it means to be a manager. In some cases, remote working may illuminate the fact that some managers do the bulk of their managing by making sure employees are physically in the office for certain timeframes, rather than relying on clearly articulated deliverables and goals to measure employee value. It’s a shift from valuing visibility to results.

For one example of how this is playing out, Daisley says HR professionals in his network have noticed that managers have been struggling to write reviews of their reports since remote working began. “It seems that managers often were doing appraisals not necessarily based on evidence of the job that someone was doing, but on whether they liked someone,” he says. “If you see someone around, and you like them, you just give them a nice appraisal. That’s not a very good way to do an assessment.”

To help managers adapt to new demands, better and more extensive training is required. In some cases, it may become clear that the current system—in which people are promoted to manager without necessarily possessing the specific skills required for management—needs to be reimagined. “Companies are going to realize that they put the wrong people into management positions in a lot of scenarios,” says Silletto. “Those people were really just the best at doing their job, and now they got promoted to a management position but they don’t truly know how to lead others and communicate effectively.”

4. Meeting culture will shift

According to research conducted by Microsoft, office workers who are now working remotely are attending more meetings, but these meetings are shorter in duration than they were pre-pandemic. Even at a short length, though, these virtual meetings can be taxing. “More virtual meetings have caused more exhaustion and cognitive dissonance because it’s harder to feel connected, and it’s harder for us to read body language,” says Dr. Brower. “It’s also more intense to look at a camera all day and to be on camera all day.”

“We’ve been reminded that being around people actually has an immense and un-substitutable value—we just need to work out when and how we do that.” —Bruce Daisley, workplace culture expert

Whether the increase in meetings is happening as a connectivity effort or as means to ensure teams are aligned, Daisley says what the real power of meetings is actual what happens afterward—and that can’t be digitally approximated. When working remotely, employees are less likely to organically debrief one another, though programs like Slack may help. “We’ve been reminded that being around people actually has an immense and un-substitutable value—we just need to work out when and how we do that,” he says.

Whether held on Zoom or in real life, Frederic Laloux, business coach and author of Reinventing Organizations, calls meetings “a pain” and says he expects their utility to be questioned moving forward. This predicted change would align with the differences in how employees’ productivity and participation is now measured as a result of months spent working from home. Whereas meetings in the past might have signified importance or engagement, moving forward, he predicts contributions are more likely to be measured in terms of work output.

5. Authenticity will dethrone performative professionalism

Since many employees have been working from home with their kids, parents, pets, partners, and other non-work-life mainstays on display in video calls, Laloux predicts that post-COVID, there may be less shame attached to being yourself and dealing with personal issues during the workday. “There’s something quite profound that might be shifting in our relationships with each other and in relaxing into being more of ourselves and bringing more of ourselves to work,” he says. “When people hide a big part of who they are behind a professional mask, they also hide a big part of their energy and their creativity, which is why so many workplaces feel pretty lifeless.”

Silletto agrees, noting that while she used to hang a ‘do not disturb’ sign on her door during live meetings (held virtually), she no longer does so because, as she puts it, she will be forgiven for any interruption. “[Colleagues] are now giving people grace and tolerating more of those distractions or environmental factors that we would not have accepted in the past as professional,” she says. Furthermore, as Neil Parikh, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Casper shared during a recent Well+Good TALKS, when someone takes a Zoom call from their home, or even bedroom, colleagues are able to understand them in a new way that can help bridge some of the connectivity gap we’re experiencing by removing real-life interactions from the equation. “I think that subliminally opens up some vulnerability and openness with other people, when you can see inside of their homes in a meaningful way. In a time where we’re so separated, I think that helps to bring us a little closer together,” he says.

This shift will allow for still more flexibility in addition to authenticity and balance. “It’s really sad that going to your kid’s school performance isn’t actually supposed to be a valid reason not to come to work,” Laloux says, adding that moving forward, it may be understood that employees will make up missed work at a time convenient for them, and employees will feel less pressure to pretend work is their number-one priority at all times. Silletto agrees, noting that her husband’s ability to now simply throw on a baseball cap after a workout to take a meeting makes it easier for him to fit exercise into his day.

Pope, however, thinks that how you present yourself onscreen matters as much as it did in office, and that being less professional could limit your potential. “I do think there needs to be some attention paid to trying to compartmentalize your personal life from your work life,” he says. To his point, keep in mind the type of work you do, your company culture, and your employer’s preferences before you decide how to appear on camera.

6. Employees will feel an increased value in doing work they believe in

The idea that millennials want to work for companies with values that align with their own is not new, but Laloux predicts this preference will expand generationally and intensify as a result of the pandemic—perhaps as an effect of feeling embarrassed to perform certain jobs in front of roommates and loved ones. “We feel like we’re exposed, or the shallowness, the absurdity, or the lack of interest we actually take in our work is exposed,” he says. “This forces us to question, ‘What am I really doing, and is this worth it?’ When we work from home, it’s harder to justify doing a bullshit job.”

“I think we’ve planted a seed for people to question the utility of their work and the larger purpose of what they’re working for.” —Frederic Laloux, business coach

This is especially true, Laloux posits, as social injustices are brought to the forefront as a direct and indirect result of the pandemic. “As many people wake up to the parallels of this short-term crisis and the longer-term climate crisis and to the Black Lives Matter [movement], I think we’ve planted a seed for people to question the utility of their work and the larger purpose of what they’re working for,” he says.

As a result, individuals may start not only to look for companies that align with their values but also for careers that give them a sense of purpose and meaning on a larger scale. This feels like the natural outcome of a future in which the lines between work life and home life, or “office” you and “everywhere-else” you become increasingly blurred. Our identities have been tied to our jobs for some time now, but moving forward, we may no longer be able to tolerate any disconnect between the two.

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