As the United States continues to lead the world in COVID-19 cases, with nearly 1 million, and, tragically, in deaths (54,938 at Noon p.m. ET, April 27)¹, and as Lysol, Clorox, other disinfectant manufacturers and the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) frantically urge the public not, under any circumstances, to gargle with or ingest cleaning products, our thoughts begin to imagine a return to some semblance of normalcy.
With an emphasis on ‘begin,’ since, for those who cherish health, normalcy is still months away.
While many in Georgia, Oklahoma, Alaska and eleven other states² begin to grapple with staying healthy and opening their economy, and while some of us wonder how Las Vegas can reopen at all³, this seems like an ideal time to consider what the workplace might look like upon our return. If, that is, we had the power to refine and update the world of work to incorporate key learnings from our shelter-in-place experiences and, importantly, to jettison things about it we’ve never liked, were counterproductive, and/or based on principles created more than 100 years ago. Indeed, why go back to what we had when we have the opportunity to modify and create an improved ‘new normal’ deliberately? If anything positive comes out of this period of isolation it should be a revamped 21st century model for the workplace. One updated to incorporate ways to make the workplace more palatable, more efficient and more conducive to producing outstanding outcomes. Indeed, one more human.
To that end, we suggest every organization consider seriously the following possibilities:
- A new ‘work day.’ Working 8:00 a.m. — 5:00 p.m. (or some variant of that) is old school, with little rationale to justify maintaining it across the board. Consider allowing each department, each unit, each supervisor to define work schedules, if work schedules are even needed. Maybe some people start at 5:00 a.m. and others at 10:00 a.m. or later. Maybe some work at night. This may not be feasible for those in retail, manufacturing or those in service industries, but it can be viable for nearly anyone who works in an office. Greater flexibility will create more opportunity to attend to individual and family needs, will provide less rigidity and, not unimportantly, will reduce traffic during rush hour — which, come to think of it, may become a thing of the past. As we’ve seen consistently over the last 4–6 weeks, the work will still get done. Even so, we’ll need well-trained supervisors and enhanced HR systems to make this happen.
- A new way to work. If we learned anything during the shutter-in-place, it is that we can work from home — something many of us have been saying for years. Why not continue this, at least for a significant portion of the week? Physical commuting is so last century. Consider the time and expense saved by not having to shower, dress, and commute to and from the workplace every day. Not to mention the dramatic reduction in air and water pollution — something we must get very serious about anyway. The planet will love us for it, as will those who enjoy living in sweats.
- A greater reliance on enhanced technology. If working from home is to become mainstream, which we believe it should, we’ll need technology to allow for productive presentations, meetings, and social interaction. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other Internet-based applications will need to be enhanced to enable seamless meetings, formal and informal conversations within and across groups and, importantly, training. They will improve — and we will benefit. And, just maybe, the road warriors among us who sit far too long on airplanes will have a viable alternative.
- A culture of personal space and hygiene. Most office buildings will require significant change if they are to attempt to maintain the health of workers. A redefinition of, or the end of, ‘open’ floorplans, return to tall dividers separating cubicles, an abundance of germ-resistant surface materials, hand sanitizers and wipes everywhere, conference rooms cleaned after each use, a heightened attention to daily cleanings by maintenance staffs (including air ducts, door knobs, elevators, bannisters, and all common spaces), automatic or no doors to bathroom entrances, and, of course, the wearing of nose and mouth coverings. Keeping kitchens clean, the bane of the pre-COVID-19 workplace, will be the very least of our new hygiene routines.
- A culture of health. In the new world, coming to the workplace when sick must be considered taboo. No longer can ‘powering through’ an illness at work be viewed as virtuous and staying at home a weakness. Instead, coming to work sick must be seen for what it’s always been: self-serving and selfish. Managers will need to support those who are symptomatic by insisting they stay home. To encourage this, companies will expand their sick leave policies and, in all likelihood, their health insurance benefits. Broader and more generous sick leave policies will be needed, as well as $0 copays for flu and COVID-19 testing, along with full coverage of required medical care to return to health. The orientation must become protecting the needs of the many rather than the needs of the few, or the one.⁴
- A culture of shared and personal growth. Working together, as a team, may become the most significant challenge in the post-COVID-19 world. Basic processes — like onboarding a new employee — will need to be reconceived to enable an organization to create and maintain an atmosphere of collaboration. The concepts of ‘leadership’ and ‘supervision’ — possibly even ‘communication’ — will need to be given careful consideration and, likely, redefinition. The steps associated with developing the skills and abilities of others — essential to any strong organization — will require redesign. Career planning, especially for high-potential individuals, will likely be of even greater importance to those organizations interested in growing. Training, mentoring and coaching will be more essential than ever. Organizations able to create such a culture — one of shared and personal growth — will thrive.
Out of crisis comes opportunity. We are not close to being out of the woods, to being on the other side, given that the number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow daily. We do not yet have ample testing, effective treatment and a vaccine. But the edge of the woods is in sight. It’s time to begin a serious, thoughtful, creative discussion and requisite planning to create a post-COVID-19 workplace. One that reflects the 21stcentury and one that builds on the human needs of those who work for a living. Something positive should come from the pandemic. A new workplace may be it.
³ Here’s a tidbit: Because the Las Vegas Strip, that portion of Las Vegas Boulevard where the majority of casinos are located, is not actually in Las Vegas, but in an unincorporated part of the county, the mayor of Las Vegas has no legal say as to when those casinos which most define that city can reopen. Somehow this minor point was missed by nearly every news source. But not by our intrepid Editor in Chief.
⁴ With thanks, of course, to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.