Starting in early March 2020 business in the United States changed dramatically. We have gone from low-employment and a robust economy to a work environment where 30+ million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance over the past 7 weeks and those that have jobs are working remotely. Congress has addressed this issue by offering workers expanded unemployment insurance and for businesses; grants, payroll protection programs and low-interest loans which can be forgiven under specific circumstances. More support from Congress is planned for the future. While Federal support is critical for the economy, the States are also offering programs to help their citizens
Given all of these changes what will happen to the American worker when we are finally able to return to normal. I would suggest that we will never return to “normal” but rather there will be changes in how we work in the near term along with long-term challenges.
Short Term Changes
The short term effects of COVID-19 may include some of these challenges:
§ Office workers will not be following the normal 8 to 5 work schedule but rather a more flexible schedule will need to be adopted by companies, not-for-profits, and governmental institutions. Employees will work in modified shifts which will stagger their hours to ensure social distancing. Testing for COVID-19 will be administered on a weekly basis and this cost will be a burden shared by the employer and government.
§ Office workspaces will need to be modified to ensure that physical distancing between employees and customers is adhered to and that barriers to physical employee inter-action will need to be constructed. Certificates will be given to those employees that have acquired COVID-19 anti-bodies which will ultimately be their passport to avoid future testing.
§ Manufacturing, production, and line employees will need to adhere to the social distancing guidelines which could mean that production may not be at peak for the near future. Protective gear will need to be assigned to employees and replaced on a frequent basis. Testing for COVID-19 will be administered on a daily basis and this cost will be a burden shared by both the employer and government. Similar to office workers certificates will be given to those employees that have acquired COVID-19 anti-bodies which will ultimately be their passport to avoid daily testing.
§ For those employees where working remotely is an option, companies will encourage staff to set-up home offices. They will only be required to visit their physical office on a very infrequent basis. This will create significant challenges for management to hold employees accountable to verify that performance and productivity standards are maintained.
§ Technology will become even more important as a tool to maintain the communication channels between the leadership team and rank-and-file employees. Video conferencing will be the future of most meetings and serve as the key communication tool.
Long Term Challenges
The long term effects of COVID-19 may include some of these challenges:
§ Less office space requirements will depress the commercial real estate market and the result will be a declining inner-city. City versus suburban infrastructure financial resources will put pressure on the HR professional as additional unemployment in this industry will occur. A perfect example is retail space in shopping centers and the potential bankruptcies of big retail companies.
§ Management will need to develop tools to keep employees appraised of the company strategy, successes, and challenges through nontraditional means. The days of “all-hands meetings” are over. Conferences and large professional events maybe eliminated until a vaccine is developed.
§ While working from home worker injuries will need to be evaluated and policies developed to ensure that workers and the employer are both protected.
§ Employee communication while always difficult will need to be further enhanced to ensure that managers are successfully supervising their staff to guarantee that they have the tools to be successful.
§ High unemployment will be a significant challenge for the future with many people looking for work in industries that no longer exist. Examples include retail, restaurants, hospitality, and travel. Until a vaccine is developed and widely distributed, human psychology would suggest that these types of industries will not bounce back quickly. People are scared and do not want to put their health at risk by shopping, going out for dinner, going to a hotel, or boarding an airplane. Companies will play a key role in supporting these former employees through outplacement services and technical training.
While the challenges of COVID-19 are many, human ingenuity and resourcefulness has not changed and there will be a vaccine which will protect all of us. The key question is how long will it take to develop and what intervening factors will change how we work in the future between now and then?