- Richard M. Gatto
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How the Pandemic Has Changed Where and How We Work
It’s become clear that there have been many changes in our lives since the pandemic hit our country in 2020. Furthermore, these changes, even those that were assumed to be temporary when they were first introduced, have impacted us for the long term. Our work life is perhaps the most obvious and pervasive example.
COVID-19’s Impact on Offices and Other Work Environments
In an article for McKinsey.com, co-authors Brodies Boland, Aaron De Smet, Rob Palter, and Aidtya Sanghvi describe the changes that occurred early in the pandemic. “During the lockdown, organizations have necessarily adapted to go on collaborating and to ensure that the most important processes could be carried on remotely … they simply transplanted existing processes to remote work contexts, imitating what had been done before the pandemic.” But as time went on, adaptations led to more changes than just location. “Previously … organizations may have generated ideas by convening a meeting, brainstorming on a physical or digital whiteboard, and assigning someone to refine the resulting ideas. A new process may include a period of asynchronous brainstorming on a digital channel and incorporating ideas from across the organization, followed by a multi-hour period of debate and refinement on an open videoconference.”1
Once the initial spike of the pandemic had receded and the lockdown was discontinued by local governments on the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, restaurants, retail shops, offices, banks, and all other public spaces began opening again. However, there were still restrictions on how many people could be in an indoor space at one time and, in some cases, visitors and employees had their temperature taken before they could enter enclosed areas. Elevators carried only one or two people at a time. Bathrooms had glass panels installed between the sinks. Any and all public spaces were cleaned several times a day. And, of course, everyone had to wear a mask over their nose and mouth when they entered a closed-in area.
The Pandemic Accelerated Changes Already in Place
Even before the pandemic, temporary employment, even for those who were college educated and in white collar jobs, had become a significant part of our economy. In 2009 Tina Brown coined the term the “gig economy” to describe how professionals and white collar workers were increasingly supporting their families on “a bunch of free-floating projects, consultancies, and part-time bits and pieces while they transacted in a digital marketplace.”2 By 2018 this represented 36 percent of American employees.3 So even before COVID struck, many workers were already primed to work from home instead of in a traditional office setting. With COVID, this arrangement became the new normal for millions more office workers by the spring of 2020.
Not only did people’s habits change regarding working from home, but so did their attitudes. According to a study by McKinsey research, 80 percent of people interviewed reported that they enjoyed working from home. What’s more, 41 percent felt that they were more productive, while another 28 percent felt they were just as productive at home as in the office.1
The Office is Everywhere
Since communications technology has progressed to a point where people can interact with one another virtually anywhere they have cell phone service, meetings with clients, colleagues, vendors, customers, and clients can take place anywhere. This has led to a change in the definition of the workday and the division between working hours and those allocated to the rest of our lives. In addition, the ability to communicate in person via computers, laptops, and cell phones, plus the demand for social distancing, has entirely changed commuting to work. In many cases, Zoom has eliminated the need to commute at all and in others, cell phones make it possible to do business while traveling from one place to another.
Our Families Have Become Part of Our Work Life, too
During the winter months of 2020, people who had never considered homeschooling their children now found themselves not only helping with homework but attending class along with their kids. Their children, on the other hand, had an opportunity to see what their parents actually did all day. This could put a strain on working parents trying to comfort an upset or bored child while attending a Zoom meeting. Interestingly enough, though, it gave colleagues and managers insights about their fellow workers they might not have had before. In fact, it was a chance to get to know the people we work with better than we might do only in an office setting.
The Home Office is Now a TV Studio
The ability to talk face-to-face – individually or in a group – over a computer, tablet, or smart phone has been around for quite a while. But it wasn’t until the pandemic made the need for this type of communication necessary that telecommuting became a part of our daily lives. The result has been a change in how we present ourselves to the world – one-on-one or in a group. We’ve all become more knowledgeable about audio and video presentations and more practiced in creating visual stories. Now the modern home office includes microphones, headsets, green screens, and all sorts of software to create more interesting presentations. And since Zoom meetings can be recorded, these productions can not only be shared with others who couldn’t make the meeting, but stored for future reference.
Being a Good Citizen is Still the First Rule of Good Business
As the pandemic continued, it soon became apparent that any corporation or business that hoped to follow traditional corporate missions of “serving the customer” and “supporting the community” had to adapt its business model. “ Here’s how Roger Crandall, Chairman, President and CEO of MassMutual, described his company’s experience. “… we exist to help people secure their futures and protect the ones they love … Since the crisis began, we’ve made a number of decisions backed by this purpose – decisions like moving quickly to working from home, using technology to connect customers with trusted financial professionals, and talking to our managers about leading with empathy as people balance work and personal obligations.”4
Another CEO, Cindi Bigelow of Bigelow Tea, had this to say about her company’s reaction to the pandemic. “It is critical that we are incredibly diligent about cleaning and sanitizing our facilities constantly throughout the day as well as reminding our employees to maintain adequate social distancing … we are constantly asking ourselves what else we can do to keep our employees and their families healthy and safe.”4
When people were finally able to return to the office after they had been vaccinated, the traditional office space still had to be adjusted. The authors of the McKinsey.com article, written before the vaccines had been widely distributed, suggested that organizations carefully monitor who could come on-site, when they could do so, how often the office was cleaned, and how far apart work stations were from each other. The authors went on to say, “A transformational approach to reinventing offices will be necessary. Instead of adjusting the existing footprint incrementally, companies should take a fresh look at how much and where space is required and how it fosters … collaboration, productivity, culture, and the work experience.”1
Doing Good in Bad Times
During the past two years, we have seen many ordinary people become extraordinary heroes – some recognized but most unsung. First and foremost are the health care professionals – doctors, nurses, technicians, and other staff members – who put their lives on the line to deal with the pandemic. Others as well, risked their health to make this crisis easier to bear – delivery people, store clerks, mailmen and women, cleaners of every description, and many more.
Those in management positions also deserve to be recognized for leading their companies, customers, and employees not only through a difficult time, but by trying to find new ways to help us all work, grow, and prosper in the future.
Some Insights from Inspiring Leaders
In researching this blog, we found several quotes from corporate executives and others in the real estate field that we thought were worth sharing. They reflect thoughts and insights about the changes and challenges we’ve all been facing over the last two years. Here are just a few:
“The best thing we can do as leaders right now is to put humanity above the almighty dollar. For Gold’s Gym, that meant making the difficult decision … to temporarily shut down operations of all company-owned gyms due to Covid-19. While this put a strain on our business, I knew it was essential that we put the health and safety of our customers and employees at the forefront.”
Adam Zeitsiff, President & CEO
“If COVID-19 had happened in 1990 there is no way we could have worked from home given that the internet barely existed – let alone home computers, email, smart phones, and Zoom. The economic hardship might very well have been too much for businesses to overcome … While some technological advances take us out of our comfort zone, once we get the hang of it, life is genuinely easier.”
Jonathan Zimmerman, Executive Vice President
Incommercial Property Group
“With the current health crisis changing norms, work-life balance is no longer a binary concept but one that has evolved into a challenging confluence between work, home, and family all under one roof. As a leader in this new paradigm, it’s important to provide employees with flexibility in how and when their work gets done, and trust and empower them to find the right life balance in these trying times.”
James Parker, CEO
“In these turbulent and uncertain times, as more and more employees return to on-site offices, the market is changing daily. An experienced tenant rep can provide a decision maker with market knowledge in allowing them to make sound decisions about office space now, and the future.”
Craig A. Nadborne, Sr. Managing Director
1Boland, Brodie, De Smet, Aaron, Palter, Rob and Sanghvi, Aditya, “Reimagining the office and work life after COVID 19,” McKinsey & Company, June, 2020, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/reimagining-the-office-and-work-life-after-covid-19
2Hasija, Sameer, V. Padmanabhan, Rampal, Prashant, “Will the Pandemic Push Knowledge Work into the Gig Economy?” Harvard Business Review, June, 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/06/will-the-pandemic-push-knowledge-work-into-the-gig-economy
3TJ McCue, “57 Million U.S. Workers Are Part of the Gig Economy,” Forbes, Aug. 31, 2018,” https://www.forbes.com/sites/tjmccue/2018/08/31/57-million-u-s-workers-are-part-of-the-gig-economy/?sh=2a9d0e3f7118
4Reiss, Robert, “CEO Quotes on Leading Through This Pandemic,” Forbes, July 22, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertreiss/2020/07/22/ceo-quotes-on-leading-through-this-pandemic/?sh=31b8b17339f2