The end of the office park? Coronavirus could change the way many of us work

The chorus of achoos in offices, on buses and in homes often sends bystanders scrambling, but what's a safe distance from someone's sneeze?
The chorus of achoos in offices, on buses and in homes often sends bystanders scrambling, but what's a safe distance from someone's sneeze?

For many Americans, the coronavirus pandemic has been the most life-altering event in their lives, and as the world prepares for what many health experts are predicting will be a crest in virus-related deaths, it has become increasingly difficult to imagine how and when things might get back to normal.

The reality is some things might not, particularly in the workplace.

From attitudes toward co-workers who stay home when they’re sick to management allowing employees to work from home, a lot of workplace dogma is being turned on its ear.

“I’ve been thinking about whether or not we can change norms and how we might,” said organizational psychologist Theresa Glomb, “because I do think lots of things will change, and specifically norms around working when you’re sick.”

A professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, Glomb studies workplace organization and employee well-being, so the way business has adjusted on the fly has been of keen professional interest as she and the rest of the world adjusts to living in a global pandemic.


“I’ve been wondering about our own behaviors about health and hygiene in our own lives,” Glomb said last week. “Once we get on the other side of this, and flu season comes around again, do we see a drop in flu because we are better at washing our hands? People are suddenly more cognizant of disease transmission in our environments. Maybe the shifting our behavior is a positive benefit; maybe there will be a decline in other illnesses that are contagious.”

There is no doubt COVID-19 was most effectively spread in places where people gathered en masse, from workplaces and schools on a small scale to major metropolitan areas on a larger one. That has sunk in for many Americans who have committed to sheltering in place — as many as 311 million or roughly 90 percent of Americans as of Monday morning — according to the New York Times.

Still, there were nine states still without a shelter-in-place order on Monday, three of which border Minnesota, and there is little doubt the coronavirus was spread in businesses that were slow to respond to the crisis, said Summer McGee, dean of New Haven (Conn.) University’s School of Health Sciences.

“COVID-19 was likely passed on by people traveling to work sick, going out to eat after work, work-related travel and more — especially for workers in urban areas who rely on public transit,” she said. “The fact that so many people continued to commute to work every day in major cities definitely contributed to the spread of COVID-19.”

That, Glomb said, will be difficult to forget.

“The first lever for shifting norms will come when other people think differently about it. In other words, when people come into work sick and start getting the evil eye, are people sitting away from you? Then it starts to shift,” she said.

As businesses cut back on staff and required fewer people to do the same amount of work in the wake of the 2008 recession, employees became routinely taxed with doing more when ailing workers stay home. Hence, sick employees can feel guilty for staying home, and those who “power through” are seen as “work warriors,” Glomb said.

In other words, said Colleen Manchester, a professor in the Carlson School of Management’s Department of Work and Organization, those who sometimes choose health or family over work “are perceived as less committed to the organization, or seen as a less productive or committed worker.”


That perception seems likely to change when businesses and schools start to re-open.

“One possible silver lining coming out of this terrible pandemic is that American society finally is sensitized to the importance of self-isolation for sick people,” McGee said. “There is now a widely understood social obligation to prevent those around you from getting sick.”

When business resumes, major industry will assess what worked and what didn’t during the pandemic. Ultimately, it might not simply be that telecommuting is safer, but cheaper because they spend less on airfare, hotels and meals. Employees who haven’t been spending money on public transit, gasoline or auto maintenance might be more likely to request the flexibility to work from home.

“I keep wondering,” Manchester said, “is this the end of the office park?”

For a large segment of the workforce, the issue is irrelevant.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 36.5 percent of American workers were allowed a flexible schedule and 24.8 percent worked at least some time from home. That, obviously, has changed dramatically as 41 states have issued stay-at-home orders for “non-essential businesses.”

That group is in large part composed of work that requires employees to be in one place, such as hospitality, retailer, construction and manufacturing. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, payroll in those industries fell by a combined 1.1 million in March.

“We’re all hearing that this is ‘the great equalizer,’ ” Glomb said. “No, it’s not. It’s not the great equalizer because rich people are more out of harm’s way. It’s another theme here: The pandemic is bringing into stark relief huge chasms in our workforce. There are white-collar workers plugging away in Zoom meetings and doing great, but also these workers that need to show up at work. You can’t do a lot of these jobs remotely, and this leads us to bigger questions about public policies.”


While these issues are at the forefront during the shutdown, they won’t go away when states start loosening restrictions on wary workers and parents who might be hesitant to send their children back into large groups.

“Even after the curve is flattened, people in various communities will still get COVID-19,” McGee said. “We will need widespread testing in those communities to know who needs to stay home and who can work. As rapid testing becomes more widely available people will be able to know much more easily if they have COVID-19 and self-isolate if needed.

“Until we have a vaccine, there is still significant risk that community spread will take place and that disease hot spots will occur across the U.S.”

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