The Post-Coronavirus Workplace: What The ‘New Normal’ May Look LikeIn the News
When we finally get through the coronavirus pandemic, what will the “new normal” look like when it comes to how we work? More specifically, what changes did we see in 2020 that are likely to stick around for the foreseeable future? And despite all these changes, what employment issues or concerns are we still going to worry about even if the coronavirus is no longer a threat?
The More Things Change…
One of the biggest changes has to be the dramatic increase in remote work. Before the pandemic, 20% of workers worked from home all or most of the time. As of late 2020, more than 70% of workers were doing all or most of their job from home.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean the new normal will include as many people working from home or that this number will continue to rise. One reason for this is because many workers would prefer a hybrid working arrangement where they can work at home and an office.
There are plenty of benefits from working from home, such as no more commutes, avoiding office politics and reduced costs for the employer. But one of the biggest benefits seen from telecommuting is the freedom it provides as to how workers can spend their time.
For example, the vast majority of remote workers reported a better work-life balance that allowed them to spend more time with their family. Then there’s the greater flexibility as to when employees can work.
It’s safe to say that many workers who have started working from home will continue to do so, at least to some extent. One notable example of this is Twitter, which announced that its workers could continue to work from home “forever” if they wanted.
This lasting change is important because the flexibility from telecommuting can increase gender equality. It’s well known that when fathers and mothers must choose between work or family obligations, mothers are more likely to interrupt their career to care for their family. Having this greater working flexibility can make it easier for women to balance their family and professional obligations.
But with this increase in working from home, there has also been an increase in employers monitoring their employees. With workers no longer in the office, it’s harder for the employer to feel comfortable knowing the workers are doing what they’re supposed to.
Employers may have any number of reasons for wishing to monitor their employees. However, the major justifications include:
- Protecting the employer from legal liability
- Protecting the employer’s intellectual property
- Protecting the employer from cyber threats, such as malware and viruses
- Making sure employees stay out of trouble, such as visiting inappropriate websites
- Ensuring employees are as productive as possible
Employee monitoring can take several forms, including:
- Taking screenshots of the employee’s computer screen
- Logging what the employee types on their keyboard
- Tracking the websites the employee visits
- Watching the employee through the computer’s webcam
- Measuring an employee’s productivity by monitoring when the computer is idle or timing how long a file or software is left open.
Some of these methods can seem pretty intrusive, and when you think about it, a lot of it focuses on the fact that employers don’t feel comfortable having their employees working outside the office. Some of this can due to the lack of familiarity with telecommuting, but some of it is probably because employers don’t trust their employees.
Imagine an employee shows up late to a meeting. If this meeting took place at work, a boss might assume the employee got held up with a client or important telephone call. But if this meeting were held over Zoom with an employee working from home, the boss might assume the employee is running a personal errand or taking a nap.
But as remote work becomes more accepted and the technology needed for telecommuting becomes more ubiquitous, there will likely be a gradual acceptance by employers of remote work.
A great example of this is employees using their personal devices for work, such as a laptop or smartphone. Some of you may recall the time when many employers were terrified of this idea because of security concerns. Yet today, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies are commonplace and expected in many work environments.
These policies were a compromise in that they established expectations that both employers and employees could accept. Employees could use devices of their choosing subject to certain rules and employers could impose certain security protocols and device limitations to protect sensitive data.
As employers learn to become more comfortable with employees working from home, they will likely reduce or even eliminate the need for remote work monitoring.
…The More They Stay the Same
No matter how the coronavirus manages to create permanent changes in how we earn a living, there are still a variety of employment issues that will still be around. One such problem is discrimination.
Because of the coronavirus, in-person instances of discrimination may be lower, especially with certain forms such as sexual harassment. But with so many ways of communicating these days, discrimination has now gone virtual.
Virtual discrimination isn’t a legal term, but it describes discrimination that occurs virtually through the use of digital tools. Instead of a coworker making a racist joke in the breakroom, it occurs in a Zoom meeting. Or perhaps a coworker flirts with a coworker through Google Chat instead of during a coffee break.
In some ways, having discrimination or harassment go virtual could potentially have some benefits for the victim. Before the coronavirus, a boss might have inappropriately propositioned an employee when no one else was around. If the victim were to file a complaint, it would be the victim’s word against the boss’ word.
If this were to occur virtually, it’s more likely the interaction would be recorded or there would be some sort of digital “paper trail” as to its occurrence. This could help deter improper behavior as well as make it easier for a victim of sexual harassment or another form of unlawful discrimination to obtain evidence to support their allegations.
But in other ways, the fact that the activity has to take place online might make it easier for improper behavior to take place. For many people, it’s easier to cross a line (or be misinterpreted) through an instant message exchange than it is talking to someone face to face.
Regardless of the overall net effect remote work has on the frequency of employment harassment and discrimination, the unfortunate fact remains that both will still occur.
Another problem that will likely still exist in a post-coronavirus workplace is gender equality concerns. Even if remote work helps increase gender equality, major issues will remain.
One such issue concerns family responsibilities. Even though men in the United States are doing more housework and parental duties since the pandemic began, the majority of these responsibilities still fall on working women. Schools and daycare centers opening back up should provide some relief to parents, but it’s not likely that there will suddenly be an equal sharing of the unpaid household workload.
Another problem that will likely remain in the “new normal” is the risk of work creep. Thanks to smartphones, texting and email, this was a problem even before the coronavirus.
With more people working from home, there’s the risk of employers taking advantage of the relative ease in which they can get in touch with their employees. Additionally, working from home makes it more difficult for employees to separate their work time from their personal time.
Many workers faced this challenge when working in an office. Assuming many employees continue working from home even when it’s safe to go back to the office, the instances of work creep will likely increase.
The coronavirus has brought permanent changes to how many of us will work. With the popularity and practicality of remote work, this will hopefully bring improvements to gender equality and work-life balance. However, problems that existed before the coronavirus, such as discrimination, harassment, and work creep are still likely to remain even when the coronavirus is no longer a problem.