COVID-19 and the Future of Traditional Workplaces in the US

In early March of 2020, the World Health Organization finally declared what many had been fearing for several months preceding. WHO officially determined that the novel coronavirus disease that had been rapidly spreading throughout the world was a global pandemic, an active threat to people worldwide. Though some countries have been hit much harder than others, the COVID-19 pandemic has surely irrevocably changed countless aspects of daily life.

Quarantine in the United States began shortly after the pandemic declaration, during the month of March. Those who took the brunt of the new federal and state mandates to “shelter in place” were the owners and employees of small businesses. All companies deemed “non-essential” were forced to close their doors to the public, forcing many to work remotely on short notice. As businesses continue to acclimate to the new virtual workplace, many have wondered: Has the future of the traditional workplace been changed for good?

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Shifting to the Virtual Workplace

Business owners and workers have undoubtedly gotten whiplash due to the ever-changing advice and guidelines given to the public by the federal government. Certain states even attempted reopening, but many, such as Florida and Texas, have seen massive increases in infection rates, forcing most municipalities to close their doors once again. This has left office work in flux, as employees are used to walking into a physical workplace to see the duties completed for the day. 

Generally, though, most have stuck to the newfound working standard of remotely clocking in from their own homes, conducting company meetings on Zoom, communicating through Slack, and so on. Though the United States is currently exceeding 3.7 million cases and 141,130 deaths, the remote working environment has unquestionably slowed the spread and prevented an even greater tragedy. The move has been uniquely beneficial for businesses that could afford to do it. By keeping their doors closed to the public, companies can still operate in compliance with government isolation orders.  

Yet, they also so save themselves from the tragedy that so many business owners are forced to face: A lack of income. Millions of small businesses may not make it out on the other side of this pandemic due to business operations being unable to be transferred to a virtual workplace. Restaurants, retail stores, and nightclubs are all primary examples of industries that have been irreversibly altered by the ongoing pandemic. Still, companies that have the ability to offer no-contact delivery, remote customer service, cloud-based collaborative work, and more, have certainly stepped up to the plate to do so.

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Accessibility and Economic Advantages of the Work From Home Framework

The virtual workplace is safer for both the employees and staff of these companies, but it is also notably more accommodating for disabled workers. Millions of individuals with disabilities expressed their frustrations at the mass migration to the “work from home” (WFH) framework. They had been pushing for several years to secure this accommodation for themselves. Before the onset of the pandemic, many were told that they would never be allowed to work remotely. 

With government restrictions in place, and a ballooning infection rate nationwide, the percentage of employees whose companies offered employees WFH opportunities rose from 39% to 57% between March and April of this year. Further, the number of U.S. residents who ended up working in a virtual office as a direct result of the coronavirus doubled during the same period, from 31% in mid-March to 62% by April. Before the novel coronavirus ravaged the world, remote work opportunities were few and far between. 

Business owners are quickly picking up on the fact that teleworking advantages are not limited to greater accessibility and increased safety, but that the shift has strengthened their cash flow as well. Studies have shown indisputable evidence that remote work strengthens companies’ financial capacity, specifically due to:

  • Lower overhead costs. Without having to invest in physical office space and equipment, companies can invest further in their core business operations and develop better products and services that boost customer loyalty and improve customer experience.
    • Example: Sun Microsystems has removed about 7,700 workers from on-site offices and has saved over $68 million per year. 
  • Lower costs for benefits packages. Since employees are no longer required to travel and be exposed to the hazards normally present in specific workplaces, healthcare and transportation costs can be dramatically reduced. 
    • Example: Studies have shown that telecommuting workers had lowered their stress levels by 25%, helping them to live generally healthier lives. Corporations are leading the way in reducing work-related travel costs by shifting to solutions such as Zoom, Slack, and Google Hangouts for communication and collaboration.  

With the unprecedented savings that companies are seeing as a result of the WFH model, opportunities for more corporate investments and enhancements to business productivity are in abundance.

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No Going Back to Traditional Workplaces

The COVID-19 pandemic has indisputably transformed what it means to conduct “business as usual” in the United States. A stunning 98% of businesses have either encouraged or required employees to adopt the WFH model, many of them intending to keep the changes indefinitely. In the words of Jes Staley, CEO of Barclays, corporate offices that house thousands of employees working shoulder-to-shoulder (or, cubicle-to-cubicle) is almost certainly a “thing of the past.” 

Staley acknowledged that Barclays had already been investing in remote working technology, something that will help the company to perfect its localizing strategy in the coming future. This sentiment was echoed by Dirk Van de Put, CEO of Mondelez International, Inc. Mondelez has seen dramatic changes to its work environment as they prepare to shift a significant portion of its workforce to remote models. Van de Put said, “Maybe we don’t need all the offices that we currently have around the world. So, there is a major effort going, taking place as it relates to the costs in the business.” 

The CEO of Morgan Stanley, James Gorman, agreed that their corporation would require “much less real estate” moving forward. In addition to the enhanced accommodations for disabled workers, and, of course, safety from the novel coronavirus, businesses across the country are capitalizing on the discovery that the new framework has significantly cut back on expenditures. With the ever-growing number of unique advantages provided by the new telecommuting standard, it’s inevitable that the future of the workplace is changed forever.


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