COVID and the Office Environment – What Changed?
As the unforgettable year of 2020 comes to a close, it is only natural to reflect on what we’ve learned and all that has changed over this 365-day whirlwind. Some lessons that come to mind: wash our hands (a lot), strive to be prepared for just about anything, and expect the unexpected.
I think most workplaces have seen some type of significant changes in their work environment since the COVID 19 pandemic rocked our society. For those of us who work in an office setting, we’ve seen all types of changes we never would have expected.
Mask requirements, teleworking options, socially distanced meetings, and virtual office holiday parties are just a few of the changes that come to mind.
Working From Home
One of the most obvious ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the office work environment is by causing tons of people to work from home. If you have an office job, then you most likely spent the majority of this past year working from home. There is also a good chance that you are still working from home now. There are benefits and drawbacks related to this work-from-home era that we are currently living in.
Benefits of Working From Home
There are actually a lot of surprising benefits related to a large portion of our population working from home. It actually helps the environment by causing fewer cars to be out on the road, in turn causing fewer fossil fumes to be entering our atmosphere.
This reduction in cars on the road also causes fewer traffic jams and overall, fewer car accidents as well. The commuters out there will definitely attest to these benefits and more!
Some studies have shown that workers are actually more efficient when given the freedom to work from home. Employees are found to be more productive when given the flexibility to work at their own schedule.
Working from home benefits the employers just about as much as it benefits the employees themselves. Costs are reduced due to fewer people occupying the office meaning there are less utility, electricity, and real estate costs.
The flexibility of working from home has actually even reduced turnaround time for businesses when it comes to retaining employees. The flexible schedule causes morale to be boosted and employees to stick around longer than they would have if forced to work in an office all the time.
Another benefit to teleworking is that it improves the employee’s quality of life. Employees can get their full work done without having to leave their families for 40 hours a week.
Although employees with children still have to take time away from their kids in order to get their work done, they are given the ability to spend time with their children on lunch breaks and right before and after they work.
This is in comparison having to leave early, drive to work, be away all day, and then have a long drive home.
Another benefit to teleworking is a lower personal cost for employees. Employees who are given the ability to work from home spend less money on transportation, work attire, and office supplies.
Drawbacks of Working From Home
Although there are a lot of benefits to working from home, there are of course some disadvantages as well.
Many employees have a harder time focusing on their work when working from home. Being at home can be very distracting because it is easy to notice things that need to be done around the house such as cleaning and organizing.
It can also be very difficult to focus for employees who have children running around, especially since a lot of kids are distance learning.
There are also security concerns for businesses when their employees are working from home. Since teleworking employees have to be given access to company software, there is always the risk that their passcode could end up in the hands of the wrong person. This could lead to security breaches and issues for the company.
Another drawback of working from home is the lack of social interaction. A lot of workers have their families at home but a lot of workers don’t. For employees who live alone or are new to the area and don’t know many people, working from home can have negative effects on mental health.
Being cooped up in a house all day isn’t really good for anyone. Even though many companies have done a great job at planning virtual gatherings and meetings via Zoom (more on that later), it can still be really hard on people to have such a reduction in social interaction.
Another rather obvious way that office work has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic is with the requirement of mask-wearing. This requirement definitely has an effect on employees and their management.
Effect on Employers
The requirement to wear face coverings in the office space leaves management with a lot of decisions to make. Do they require face coverings at all times? Or is it okay for employees to remove their masks when sitting in their individual offices or when socially distanced?
This also creates an interesting dynamic for employees who work in cubicles versus employees who are able to have their own office. It seems a little unfair that employees who have the luxury of an office get to remove their masks while cubicle workers would probably have to keep theirs on all day.
Employers might have to work on making things more fair for employees, maybe by rotating the offices or by providing more socially distanced workspaces so that everyone can be given the option to remove their masks throughout the day.
Employers are also left with the responsibility to provide face coverings for their employees. Although many employees already have face coverings due to the widespread requirement of masks in the public, there is always the chance that someone will leave theirs at home.
Employers have had to invest money in multiple mask options for their employees and other types of face coverings.
Some employees who have certain types of physical ailments such as COPD or asthma might not be able to wear a traditional mask and may require something more breathable like a plastic face shield.
These are all types of new issues that employers are having to take into consideration that simply did not exist prior to the pandemic.
Effect on Employees
Requiring face coverings in the workplace has an effect on employees just as much as it has an effect on their management. Face masks are just one more thing that a person has to think about in the morning as they’re rushing out of the house to get to work.
Wearing a face mask can also cause you to socialize less with coworkers and just feel generally disconnected from the people who surround you at work.
Face masks are obviously extremely important and we have to wear them, but they come with a lot of disadvantages as well. For employees who suffer from anxiety or claustrophobia, wearing a face mask can be extremely stressful.
Also, for employees who have COPD or asthma, they may not be able to wear a face mask. Other face-covering options exist but they come with issues as well. Such as plastic face shields and the way they fog up when a person talks.
Luckily for many employees in the office setting, you might be able to pull your mask down when sitting alone in your office or if you are able to social distance when in the office setting. But not everyone has that option.
As offices slowly reopen, one infection prevention tactic that they may use would involve staggering schedules. This would involve having some employees work from home on given days of the week in order to avoid having a lot of people in the office all at once. Some office spaces will slowly bring back employees rather than reopening the entire office all at once.
Staggering schedules is a pretty smart concept for office spaces because it could allow employees to work at a further distance from each other.
It would also allow for high touch areas such as break rooms and restrooms to be exposed to fewer people in a given day. Being able to clean these areas frequently and having fewer people using them daily is a really great way for offices to prevent infection.
One way that offices could stagger schedules is by looking at different divisions at their company. They could have groups that work closely with one another work on the same days while other groups work on other days. That way those who need to collaborate are all present on the same days.
This type of shift staggering definitely comes with its challenges and will take some adjustment for most employees. Going into the office on varying days throughout the week can be confusing and overwhelming.
Some employees might find it hard to keep track of their schedules as they continually change. It seems like we’ve all been doing a lot of adjusting this last year and the office space workforce is no exception.
Another adjustment to the office environment that has occurred in the last year is the vast use of Zoom for meetings, interviews, and even gatherings like happy hour. Encouraging bonding between coworkers is one of the best ways to boost a workplace’s morale.
Something about those conference room parties every month or so just really helps everyone take a step back and just connect as people, rather than workers.
Unfortunately thanks to the pandemic, these types of gatherings just aren’t very safe right now. Since they are such an important part of creating a positive workspace, many offices are turning to platforms like Zoom to have virtual happy hour and other types of group discussions with coworkers.
Talking to someone through a screen will never feel the same as having a real in-person discussion but we are honestly lucky to have software that still allows us to connect with people regardless of our locations.
Programs like Zoom and Skype are also being relied heavily upon by businesses for more reasons than just catching up with work friends. These types of platforms are also an important tool for companies to use for meetings and job interviews. Being able to collaborate with multiple people at once over a virtual platform is something that has saved so many businesses during this challenging time.
We’ve all been making a lot of different adjustments this year and showing ourselves just how adaptable we really are. What we’re facing in the workplace is no different. The office environment has changed immensely in the last year and workers are facing these changes directly.
Things like mask requirements, staggered schedules, and teleworking are showing us just how much of an impact this pandemic has had on every aspect of life.
Employers and employees alike are understanding the benefits and drawbacks associated with all of these changes.
Some aspects, like teleworking, might have more advantages than disadvantages. Whereas aspects like mask-wearing are just an overall challenge, yet we all know we have to do.
Luckily, we have a lot of great resources at our fingertips that make these changes happen just a little bit more smoothly.
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