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Coronavirus Could Transform the World of Work. Are Businesses Ready?

An ever-growing number of U.S. companies are temporarily shuttering their offices and moving to telework to prevent coronavirus’ spread, raising important questions about short-term business success, and the long-term impact this might have on the world of work.

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One advantage of having workers physically present is team collaboration. Another is management supervision, as employers have full visibility into employees’ day-to-day activities. They can see with their own eyes if and when someone starts showing signs of disengagement — withdrawing themselves from social settings, acting anxious and even aggressive toward others and they can typically nip those issues in the bud in real time.

This is important, as disengaged employees cost the country between $483-$605 billion in lost productivity by Gallup’s estimates. But this is only a temporary thing, right? No need to lose sleep over a potential handful of less-productive-than-usual days? Well, not quite.

If more employers follow the lead of Amazon, Apple, Twitter, Microsoft and Google, a sizable portion could seriously consider whether they ever really needed a physical building for their business. So long as essential operations aren’t drastically disrupted by telecommuting, many employers may opt to make this switch a permanent one.

This would fundamentally alter the American workforce, and simultaneously demand fundamental changes to the way business leaders oversee their organization.

Perhaps, in the hopes of addressing the lost productivity issue, they would deploy technology to micromanage employees’ second-by-second contributions. This is hugely invasive and could actually be counterproductive. For example, if someone just so happens to be an expert on something and finishes a task quickly, they might still stay on that task longer than necessary so as not to raise eyebrows about the quality of their work.

There are far more important issues and cultural concerns business leaders will have to turn their attention to, one concerning human resources. If employees can’t walk into a supervisor’s office and work through potential problems, how will they report red flags? How will they share their own very personal emotional concerns? How will they report that a co-worker has completely disengaged from participating in team conference calls, or are noticeably distracted with a poor home-working environment? If the answer is email or instant message, will employees be disincentivized to do so for security and confidentiality purposes?

Employers will also have to consider personnel policy modifications. Whereas onboarding paperwork might have stressed that physical or emotional workplace violence would not be tolerated, it might now have to emphasize cyber bullying and harassment. Business leaders will also have to determine whether to give employees company-owned phones and computers — accompanied by an acceptable use policy — or permit employees to use their own devices.

Where employees clock in is yet another thing to think about. Do employees have a secure internet connection at home? Could business leaders make someone’s employment contingent on whether they have this capability, plus other appropriate tools?

Furthermore, should an employee decide to work in a public place, say a library or a coffee shop, what happens if they have to take a phone call that contains sensitive information, or they log in to a public WiFi network? Is this acceptable? Will the company have a systemic way for employees to report concerns over a colleague’s handling of confidential information outside the office? And, if something like this were to result in some sort of breach or scandal, who will shareholders hold accountable?

These are all questions executives must answer. Should it be today’s No. 1 concern, with a pandemic putting lives on the line and crushing the world’s economy? Maybe not. But in the uneasy days ahead, whether they’re sitting in their corporate headquarters or home office, it is imperative for employers to ponder how drastically these short-term closures could transform today’s workforce and their organization’s role in it — and also look to innovate in this time of uncertainty.  

About the Author

Tom Miller is CEO of ClearForce.


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