Will the future of the workforce look dramatically different as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
A recent piece in The Atlantic suggests that “the workforce is about to change dramatically” with a permanent shift to remote work and a resulting move by many workers to pursuing full-time entrepreneurial ventures.
This is the predicted fallout from millions upon millions of American workers being thrust into a work-from-home scenario almost overnight. The prediction by several media outlets is that the office and workforce as we know it has taken on a new form and will do so indefinitely.
Prominent examples have been mentioned — such as Google having its 200,000 employees work remote for another year to retailing giant REI selling its new office building before ever moving into it — as evidence that the office and the workforce as we know it are forever changed.
However, I believe that many offices will return to their prior way of working — having the workforce in a physical office space — once COVID-19 subsides. To be sure, there is certainly going to be continued economic fallout from the pandemic that results in additional job loss and even business closures. I am not arguing against this unfortunate reality. But I believe, in contrast to the predictions recently made, that many workers will make their way back to their office buildings and most will continue to work for an organization as opposed to pursuing their own business full-time.
One Tampa Bay executive told me he anticipates bringing 70 percent of his workforce back to the office by the first of the year. This could be a slower transition back to work for some organizations and will likely include some hybrid of rotating 50 percent of the workforce in and out of the office throughout the workweek. Ultimately the workforce will return to the office for a couple of reasons.
While working from home is considered a perk by some, many workers seek the social connections that are made available to them in the traditional workplace. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy noted the positive impact these connections have on the workplace, such as increased productivity and reduced burnout, and recommended that organizations “make fostering social connections a strategic priority.” This is easier done in person than via a Zoom call.
Additionally, many organizations have significant fixed costs such as long-term leases wrapped up in physical office spaces. And many organizations are finding that work-from-home setups are causing projects to take longer and making employee training tougher to carry out. If the fixed cost of office space is a factor and workers are potentially more productive at the office, it makes sense that many organizations will have their employees return post-pandemic. While many American workers have done a phenomenal job of working from home, managing the intersection of working on a laptop at the dining room table with interruptions from children or a spouse, many are eager to return to their prior way of working.
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Finally, The Atlantic suggests that many workers — due to the spatial distance from their co-workers caused by the work-from-home experience — will find it easier to leave their current work to shift to “side hustle” entrepreneurial ventures on a full-time basis. This is not to say many Americans will not pursue entrepreneurial ventures on the side. On the contrary: Almost half of all Americans have part-time side businesses.
Nonetheless, while opting for a full-time entrepreneurial venture may be the right move for a small percentage of those who remain employed by their pre-pandemic employer, I believe most workers will seek to remain with their organization for the time being.
In short, many workers are accustomed to the earnings they make at their current job and may be risk averse enough to not give up their steady income. Furthermore, working from home during the pandemic has shown many workers that the lonely road of toiling away in solitude — the average day of many entrepreneurs — is not the life for them.
With all of this in mind, I believe the “new normal” for the workplace might just look a lot like the pre-COVID normal.
Russell Clayton is an instructor in the University of South Florida Muma College of Business’ School of Marketing and Innovation, teaching MBA courses on managerial communication.