Insights at UBC Sauder

Q&A: What will the post-COVID-19 workplace look like?

Laptop user wearing a mask.
Posted 2020-05-25

COVID-19 has resulted in millions of people working from home. As businesses begin to reopen, employees may find themselves in a very different workplace than before COVID-19.

Rebecca Paluch, an assistant professor in UBC Sauder’s Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Division, studies the relationship between organizations and employees during changing employment trends. 

We spoke with her to find out how COVID-19 has changed the workplace and what we should expect going forward.

How has COVID-19 changed the way we work? 

One of the more dramatic changes is the mass transition from working in offices to working from home, or telecommuting. Pre-COVID, many organizations were resistant to these types of work arrangements, assuming they would harm organizational culture or reduce productivity. However, research shows several desirable outcomes associated with telecommuting, such as boosting employee performance and job satisfaction, while reducing employee stress. 

That said, telecommuting is more likely to have negative outcomes when used more than a few days a week, as is the case during COVID-19. As you might expect, telecommuting more than a few days a week limits the ability for employees to bond and connect with each other, which can increase feelings of loneliness and isolation. 

These new norms have created an opportunity for organizations to position themselves as leaders or innovators by finding unique ways to foster community amongst their work-at-home team.

How has COVID-19 changed things for organizations where employees must come into the office?

In situations where it is essential for workers to come into the workplace, many companies have resorted to split shifts or rotating in-office work weeks. While this will help with physical distancing in office spaces, organizations need to consider how these changes might impact the workers’ daily routines in their personal lives. Continually changing daily or weekly schedules can result in harmful health outcomes due to disrupted sleep cycles or increased stress associated with managing family responsibilities.

How will these changes carry over into the medium-term and long-term?

Given all of the provinces have multi-phase re-opening plans that extend over the next few months, it is unlikely that work will resemble anything similar to pre-COVID norms in the near future. Many organizations are announcing extended work-from-home policies through the rest of 2020, while others like Facebook, Shopify and Twitter are making these remote work arrangements permanent. For organizations that have this ability, I expect many will follow suit and extend remote work arrangements to attract and retain talent with a variety of post-COVID wants and needs.

These changes will have various medium- and longer-term effects as organizations will have to adapt a variety of taken-for-granted HR policies and procedures. For example, employers and employees will have to set new norms and expectations for those who are transitioning to permanent remote work arrangements. This raises many questions – what will be the new norms around working hours or frequency of communication? What will successful employee performance look like, and how will it be measured? How will these new work designs impact incoming employees adapting to a virtual or in-flux organization? These are important questions companies will be facing over the coming months, and I believe successful organizations will navigate these challenges by carefully incorporating employee feedback and considering the links between HR strategy and the overall business strategy.

Are there other organizational changes that we should expect post-COVID?

I’m interested in seeing how organizations will manage employment relationships in a volatile work environment as well as plan for diversity and inclusion given these new work arrangements.

Regarding the first, while organizations traditionally only consider policies and practices that support current employees, given the unprecedented levels of unemployment over the past months, more organizations are looking for ways to support their former employees as well. For example, Airbnb is providing extended support for their laid-off employees by giving them a larger severance package and continuing to pay for health insurance. Given huge uncertainty in employment forecasting, organizations should consider how to maintain relationships and foster community with employees who voluntarily or involuntarily leave the organization.

Organizations also need to recognize the importance of diversity and inclusion in these times of crisis. Women and people of colour have been particularly at risk for unemployment due to COVID-19, and organizations will have to carefully consider how employment and HR decisions are impacting underrepresented employees in their workforce.