Updated: Apr 30, 2020
At some point we will get past this COVID-19 pandemic.
It may not happen tomorrow, or next week. But data suggests it will happen as reports of places like China and South Korea are slowly starting to return to their normal lives.
But what exactly will normal look like post COVID-19? Will there be a “new normal” when the U.S. finally defeats this virus? Specifically, with the exception of essential employees, the American workforce has been forced to work from home. A SHRM report detailed a report that 67 percent of employers were at least taking steps to allow employees to work from home who don’t normally do so.
Will that percentage change once this is over? There’s reason to believe it might not.
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, was quoted in a Politico article titled, “Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently. Here’s How.” She said, “The comfort of being in the presence of others might be replaced by a greater comfort with absence, especially with those we don’t know intimately. Instead of asking, ‘Is there a reason to do this online?’ we’ll be asking, ‘Is there any good reason to do this in person?’”
Those mindsets will undoubtedly enter the workplace as well. It will change how companies meet with clients and prospects, along with overall daily operations. A more virtual workplace means IT departments will need to be at the top of their game, as well.
That can create challenges, but also advantages to the workplace. Here are a few scenarios with thoughts from Apex leadership:
A more virtual workplace will mean a change in operations. Even if the majority of workers are still in the office, some methods, meetings and events could shift to virtual – resulting in a combination of advantages and challenges.
“I think operating in a virtual manner can create efficiency. However, it does present obstacles as well –not only in terms of the capacity of our hardware and infrastructure to sustain the digital load, but also in areas like employee engagement and culture,” said Jim Harenberg, Apex chief operations officer. “Many companies already have high numbers of remote- or home-based workers and experience the challenge of creating connectedness between employees and the company.”
A virtual work environment can be difficult on employees, especially ones known to be social in the workplace, once the everyday face-to-face interactions with co-workers and customers are cut off. However, there are plenty of ways to keep remote workers engaged, which can ensure there’s no drop off on productivity.
The idea of working remotely and having teleconference meetings is nothing new. But after COVID-19, it’s likely to become more mainstream than ever. The argument can be made that the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the workforce farther down that road. For instance, the use of telehealth has grown rapidly since the outbreak.
“As some people say, ‘never waste a good crisis,’” Harenberg said. “One of the benefits to our world is that COVID-19 is pressure testing and accelerating change in many areas of society.”
Interactions with customers
Perhaps the trickiest aspect of the virtual workplace will be how companies engage with their clients and prospects. The traditional face-to-face meeting is always welcome, and sometimes seen as more courteous than a video chat or phone call. However, the efficiency of those calls versus the time spent commuting to see clients has become more appreciated by both parties.
In fact, some companies are providing their employees with monthly videoconference training sessions to use for clients, prospects and others.
Finding the right balance between the in-person and virtual meetings is key.
“During a meeting with one of our new clients in 2019, half of the team participated from our Apex office while two of us managed the meeting in person,” said Scott Long, Apex vice president of Sales. “It was a very effective use of our time and technology. The team performed well and I believe the prospect – now our client – appreciated our thoughtful approach.”
The push toward virtual meetings likely won’t eliminate in-person meetings for good.
“I don’t believe in-person meetings will become 100 percent a thing of the past,” Long said. “However, I do believe we will be more wise with our time.”
IT on the frontlines
How efficient – or inefficient – a company is with their technology won’t just depend on the infrastructure, but the IT staff as well. The IT team is mostly known to employees as who to call when you’ve forgotten your password, or your computer won’t remotely connect to the internal system. But those same IT staff are the ones who build, create and maintain the tools that allow a company’s employees to be productive with their technology.
They’re also the ones who keep up with security policies and stay up to date on the latest anti-hacking technology.
In a more virtual workplace, IT becomes that much more vital to a company’s success.
“IT will become more necessary than ever as remote work brings new challenges regarding security and support capabilities,” said Apex Director of Technology Matt Hughes. “Employers will need a strong IT staff to support both in- and out-of-office employees. New policies will also have to be written and maintained as the infrastructure changes.”
IT will also likely be tasked with creating or finding tools that gather metrics to make sure remote workers are delivering the product they are paid to produce.
Is your company prepared?
We’ve never seen an event like this change our day-to-day lives and how we get work done. While most companies already have continuity plans in place in case of catastrophic events like fires, earthquakes and other disasters, few – if any – were quite prepared for the level of disruption caused by COVID-19.
How the workplace will change once this pandemic is over and the world goes back to normal is yet to be seen. But it’s likely that the new normal will include a shift in employee and employer preferences – and the expectation of a more virtual workplace.
Is your company ready?