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May 5, 2020

Here Are Our Predictions for How Coronavirus Will Change “Office Work”

Artemis Health

The coronavirus pandemic has already had a profound effect on businesses large and small. We’ve highlighted how many businesses have pivoted to providing essential equipment, supporting frontline workers, and making innovative changes to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. But there’s another looming question on the horizon as states start to allow businesses to reopen and employees to return to work: What will work look like now? 

For non-office workers, many of whom are still commuting to manufacturing plants, distribution warehouses, or retail stores each day, it may look mostly the same. New mask and glove protocols, sanitation procedures, and distancing from coworkers and customers may be all that changes for these folks who are doing essential work. But for office workers who are currently dialing into meetings from their dining room tables or basement offices, the world of work may change permanently due to coronavirus. 

We have rounded up some predictions from our experts and from around the internet, and here are some ways we expect office work to change in the COVID-19 era. 

More fully remote workers. 

As Employee Benefits News puts it, “WFH USA. It’s the end of the (working) world as we know it.” For those not up on the remote work lingo, WFH stands for “Work(ing) From Home.” Benefits professionals have already pitched in to help roll out new policies, worked alongside IT to provide employees with the equipment needed to be productive from their living rooms, and reminded everyone to use their Employee Assistance Program if they’re struggling to cope (more on that later).They’ll likely be tapped as social distancing restrictions are lifted to decide who can work from home on a permanent basis and who should return to the office. 

There are some keenly felt downsides to permanent remote work. As many of you are probably noticing right now, it can be quite isolating. Employee engagement, culture, and satisfaction could all be impacted if we transition to a fully remote workforce. But some workers swear by the productivity gains and lack of distractions that they achieve in a home office. With children out of school or not attending daycare due to COVID-19, this probably isn’t the case quite yet. If schools and care centers reopen this fall, benefits teams and supervisors may note a boost in productivity if workers are still remote. 

Companies may also see gains in diversity and talent if they continue to allow remote work after the threat of coronavirus is behind us. They could hire anywhere in the world and use tech knowhow gained during the crisis to ensure staff is connected, integrated, and collaborative. While there are challenges for benefits teams with employees in dozens of states, this approach is likely to be more common than ever in the post-COVID world. 

Whether working from home is a temporary stopgap or a permanent change to your corporate policies and culture, benefits professionals will be needed to implement a phased, organized, and thoughtful return to work plan as the country begins to reopen. 

New sanitation standards. 

Some high-profile examples of workplace outbreaks likely have benefits teams worried about the health and safety of their employees, not to mention the risk and liability challenges. Office workers returning to work in the next few months may find new sanitation procedures, protocols, and requirements set in place by HR and management. 

It’s not just masks, gloves, and Clorox wipes; offices are thinking of innovative ways to create and maintain a sanitary workplace: 

  • Using antimicrobial materials for office furniture 
  • UV cleaning systems that sterilize hard surfaces overnight 
  • Automated sensors on doors, light switches, faucets, and other high-touch surfaces 
  • Temperature monitoring at entrances
  • Signage to direct foot traffic so employees can maintain a 6-foot distance 
  • High-tech air filtration systems

Marriott Hotels and Discover have already announced some of these innovations will be present in their office locations. These measures will likely impact the communication plans of benefits leaders, who will be tasked with letting returning employees know what’s changing, how to stay safe, and what’s expected of them going forward.

Higher telemedicine and mental health wellness utilization. 

This isn’t as much of a prediction as it is a new normal already. Employees and their families are more likely to utilize telemedicine and mental health services than before the coronavirus swept around the world. There are a couple of very clear reasons for the boosted engagement with these benefits: 

  1. Telemedicine is in the news right now. Medical experts, high-profile politicians, and the local news are all promoting telemedicine as a means of getting medical care without endangering yourself or others. 
  2. People are struggling with isolation, grief, stress, anxiety, and depression as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. This situation is a recipe for behavioral health conditions, and even those who are otherwise healthy may be struggling mentally right now. 

As reported in Employee Benefit News, mental health apps and programs are seeing big peaks in utilization. 

“Headspace, a mindfulness and meditation app which counts Google and LinkedIn as employer clients, has seen users completing calming meditations 13 times more often than in the previous month, and meditations targeted toward managing anxiety have climbed. Headspace has responded by creating a free content hub with guided meditations and mental health exercises for all its subscribers.”

While many large, self-insured employers already have a telemedicine or Employee Assistance Program vendor as part of their benefits package, it’s a good time to remind members of their options. Work with your carrier to send out communications about these services and help employees find the care they need. Employees at smaller, fully insured organizations may still have telemedicine access for both physical and behavioral visits. Your broker or carrier may be able to help you gather the info and inform employees about their options.  

Changes to sick leave policies. 

The Families First Act has already put into place some new rules around paid leave due to COVID-19, though these only apply to businesses with fewer than 500 employees. It mandates 80 hours of 100% paid sick leave for employees who are quarantined under government or healthcare provider orders. Additionally, if an employee is unable to work because they’re caring for someone under quarantine, they must be paid for up to 80 hours at 2/3rds their regular rate of pay. 

While these new federal laws do not apply to larger, self-insured organizations, this may shift, and some states are enacting sick leave laws that do affect larger employers. The need to look closely at sick leave policies at organizations of all sizes is clear in a post-coronavirus world. In order to maintain maximum productivity and a healthy workforce, benefits teams will likely take a more proactive role in educating employees on their sick leave policies, encouraging people to stay home when they feel sick, and helping supervisors understand how to enforce and gather documentation as needed when employees are sick. 

We predict that large employers will re-examine their sick leave policies and make meaningful changes to protect their organizations in the event of further outbreaks in the future. 

Increased personal space. 

Is “hot desking,” the practice of using any free desk in an open office, dead after coronavirus? Probably. Experts are predicting new guidelines for spacing desks, directing foot traffic, and using communal spaces as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hot desking is one trend that is likely to suffer due to a need for better spacing and sanitation. 

Open office spaces without cubicles or other separation structures has been a hot trend for a number of years now. Personal space has also been shrinking. According to commercial real estate firm Cushman Wakefield, the average square footage per employee dropped from about 211 square feet in 2009 to 193 square feet by 2017, a loss of about 13%. This densification may be reversed in the wake of coronavirus, as the need to maintain social distancing collides with the layout of a traditional office. 

We may see cubicles come back into fashion, desks spaced further apart, signage to direct traffic away from one another, and meeting rooms with fewer chairs. Some companies in China have allowed white-collar workers to return in “shifts” so there are fewer people in the building at any given time. Others may take a similar approach, opening up their offices in waves while some percentage of employees continue to work remotely. 

When office workers return to their desks, they may drive change themselves instead of waiting for management to do so. You might see masked employees setting up in meeting rooms and closing the doors to isolate themselves from coworkers. Be prepared to help managers deal with “rogue” employees and communicate what changes they can expect from the organization to keep them safe. 

What innovative ideas are your benefits teams considering as they prepare for a return to work? How are you working across teams to roll out new policies and protocols that comply with local ordinances and health best practices? If you’d like to learn more about how Artemis Health is responding to COVID-19, visit our Resource Center. 

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