The Upcoming Socially Distanced Workplace Will Shock You

Dr. John Sullivan and Michael Cox

Shocking Future Of Work Actions For Keeping Your Workplace COVID-19 Safe

Most “future of work” trends will develop slowly. However, what we call “radical workplace social distancing” will have to begin almost immediately to avoid virus issues among those that physically come to work. Unfortunately, most executives are only planning for moderate workplace changes. If those small changes are insufficient, it may be a multi-million dollar mistake. Ineffective workplace social distancing will lead to extreme levels of absenteeism, employee deaths, complete facility shutdowns, and negative impacts on product sales. Finally, the added burden of millions in employee lawsuits if it is perceived that your organization didn’t do enough.

These Workplace Social Distancing Actions Will Impact The Way You Do Work 

If your organization is going to have even a portion of its workforce physically return to work at an office building, remember that we warned you that, for the immediate future, “radical workforce social distancing” will be required. Your executives, managers, and HR staff must be aware that these extreme workplace adaptations will be extremely expensive. Your organization will be forced to completely change the way work is done. And, because these changes are so radical, don’t be surprised when everyone from executives down to your employees are initially shocked by these changes and their impacts.

Some Workplace Social Distancing Actions Will Shock Many 

When you decide to bring a portion of your currently working at home staff back to your physical workplace, you will likely need these workplace distancing features until an almost perfect COVID19 vaccine is widely available. This list was developed based on workplace changes that have already occurred in a handful of leading-edge organizations. A survey of managers and employees identified the most shocking and sometimes disturbing factors. Those are found at the beginning of the list.

The top 10 most shocking but impactful social distance workplace changes

  1. Age discrimination issues increase dramatically. Older workers carry a higher death risk and increased medical costs. However, there are also protected under age discrimination and disability statues. So be careful because an unconscious or conscious bias in favor of younger workers may develop (at least two instances have already occurred). However, acknowledging their higher risks, the managers of older and statistically vulnerable workers will need to provide more flexibility in where they work.
  2. Physically coming to work will be rare and only to increase collaboration. Working at home has recently become the norm. In the future, those doing the type of work that can be done remotely will likely work at home 90% of the time. Employees that work at home and in the same city where their team is located, will choose to only physically come to work, on average, one day every two weeks. And, that visit will be for collaborative reasons. Globally located remote workers are so physically spread out that the only collaborative face-to-face meetings will likely occur at professional conferences, where everyone on the team will be scheduled to attend.
  3. An extended economic downturn will require a highly fluid workforce. Executives will need to plan on variable levels of economic growth in different countries (because of different levels of effectiveness of their virus responses). Adjusting to these continuous economic shifts will require frequent changes in organizational workforce levels and the required skill sets. Increasing workforce flexibility means continuing targeted furloughs, layoffs, and maintaining a large percentage of contingent workers. New talent can be rapidly added and when needed, simultaneously labor costs can be quickly reduced.
  4. Many will be abruptly asked to leave. Employees will be given weekly virus tests and a sticker on their badge indicating a negative virus test will be required during entry times. In addition, both employees and customers will need to successfully pass a thermal camera forehead screen before they will be allowed to enter. Heat cameras in common internal walkways will also instantly screen out those employees with elevated temperatures any time during the day. Human monitors will demand that every employee continuously wears a face mask outside of their workstation. 
  5. Extreme dress down will become the new norm. After months of getting accustomed to working at home in T-shirts and shorts, it will be extremely difficult to get most “come to work employees” to even dress up to the previous expected business casual level.
  6. Open floor plans fade. Open floor plans have become the norm. However, socially spaced office designs require widely separated and at least partially enclosed workstations or offices with powerful exhaust ventilation. Hoteling workspaces will save office costs if effective sanitation is possible. This increased employee separation will reduce collaboration but increase privacy. Co-working spaces will be eliminated, along with handshakes, fist bumps, hugging, and touching. Employees will be required to wear social distancing wristbands that will buzz when employees fail to distance themselves. While at work, employees may be required to activate a tracking device on their mobile phone. So that if someone is detected with the illness, where they went and who they came close to can be quickly tracked. HR should be prepared for complaints about employee privacy due to these tracking features. Production facilities, warehouses, and retail spaces will also require Plexiglas separators, facemasks, and social distancing requirements.
  7. Robots replacing humans will occur even faster. The high costs of protecting human workers will accelerate selecting machines over humans. Software, algorithms, or robots will take over all repetitive tasks now done by either remote or on-site employees. Most companies are not prepared for the wave of resistance, strikes, unions, and sabotage that will come from increased automation over the next two years. Reduced revenues will highlight data-driven decision-making and machine learning will be used to increase efficiency.
  8. Organizations will proactively reduce the need for taking mass transit. To reduce potentially infectious mass transit trips, companies will open remote satellite offices closer to where employees live. Parking spaces may also have to be expanded to facilitate expanded employee commuting. Employee only vanpools and free single Uber rides may be offered to those that test negative for the virus.
  9. Social distancing forces employees to work in shifts. Social distancing means fewer can work in the same physical space. So added evening and late-night shifts will be needed to separate those that physically come to work. For each shift, employee entrance and exit times will be staggered to maximize social distancing and decrease traffic.
  10. Face-to-face meetings become rare. With a large percentage of workers working outside the physical workplace, all team meetings will need to be available remotely via Zoom. And, even those that can physically attend a meeting will need to be socially spaced apart.

Additional shocking but impactful social distance workplace changes

  • The acceptance of working at home will result in a globally located team. Rather than relying on local hiring, your hiring talent pool and your workforce will expand until it becomes truly global with remote teams. A global workforce will make violations of local labor laws more likely and the skills required for managing a globally diverse team more critical. Furthermore, managers will have smaller spans of control because it will be much harder to manage employees that you seldom physically meet. To maximize productivity, managers will need to utilize effective KPI performance metrics covering individual performance and team cooperation.
  • An extended workday will reduce work/life balance. Because of the last three factors (shift workers, globally located workers, and remote meetings), there will be an increased need for team meetings and collaborative events during overlapping hours. And, having to attend these events outside of their normal shift hours will result in a loss of employee work/life balance.
  • Unfortunately, innovation will suffer. Because of the same three factors, the number of face-to-face chance serendipitous meetings that directly increase collaboration and innovation will be dramatically reduced. There will be an overall reduction in team innovation. Perhaps, as companies refine remote collaboration tools, similar to a virtual marketplace of ideas, “What I’m working on profiles,” and remote hackathons. Over time, innovation by remote workers will increase.
  • Hiring must adapt and change. Hiring volumes will be reduced during the downturn. The limited hiring will be targeted on global workers working mostly in innovation, technology, quantum computing, and machine learning jobs. The recruiting function’s capability will need to be expanded so that the organization can effectively recruit the best talent from around the world. Fortunately, having a large global talent pool will also help to minimize talent shortages. Both experienced and college candidates will be evaluated 100% remotely using only telephone and video interviews. Key attraction factors will shift to employee virus protection, medical benefits, sick leave, and job security. All new hires will be assessed on their ability to work remotely and their adaptability to a changing VUCA environment. And finally, high unemployment rates will reduce the need for great candidate experience.
  • Elevator capacity may be limited to one. The need for continuous social spacing will force a reduction in elevator capacity. Depending on the size of your elevators that may be as few as one employee. Unfortunately, this will dramatically slow internal employee movement within multi-floor buildings. This slowed movement will inadvertently reduce collaboration, while increasing unproductive waiting time. In addition, the social spacing will also severely limit the capacity of workout, break rooms, and eating areas. So the usage of these facilities may have to be scheduled in advance.
  • Continuous sanitation will be essential. Every area where congregation occurs will be sanitized twice a day and deeply cleaned once at the end of each day. Ultraviolet lights will be used to sanitize when no employees are in the workspace and all sanitation actions will be publicly posted as they occur. Work surfaces and furniture will have to be easily cleanable. Hand sanitizers will be placed at every major doorway, facemasks may be required and personal protection equipment will be available to anyone that requests it. The fear of catching the virus will reduce productivity. Only, single person, self-sanitizing (automatically after each use) bathrooms will be allowed (and surplus toilet paper will be locked up).
  • Automatic activation will replace touching. To reduce the spread of the virus. The handles for doors and buttons for elevators, vending machines, and all equipment will shift to voice, mobile phone or heat sensor activation. Other frequently touched surfaces will be cleaned by the user every time before and after each use. 
  • All office food will be prepackaged. To reduce the spread of the virus, water fountains will be replaced by sanitized disposable water bottles. Open containers of food will not be allowed for meals or parties. Eating and coffee break times will be scheduled for each team and staggered to maximize social distancing.
  • Negative pressure rooms will isolate customer areas. In locations frequented by customers. Close by employee workspaces will be made “positive pressure rooms” to prevent aerosols from customer areas spreading into employee workplaces.
  • The death of paper. To prevent the virus from spreading, no one will be allowed to handle, generate, or pass paper. All received paper documents will be immediately scanned, so that all information is 100% digital and online. The passing of computer thumbnail storage sticks between coworkers will also be prohibited, for both data security and virus spreading reasons.

Unfortunately, There Will Be Reduced Resources For Making These Changes

The required social spacing on the business side of many companies will mean that in many cases fewer customers can be served. In other organizations, the general global business downturn will also mean radically reduced revenues. Taken together this means that most organizational budgets will be severely reduced. And, with the simultaneous increase in medical insurance costs and sick leave usage, corporate overhead costs will simultaneously skyrocket.  Finally, with the reduced headcounts that are already occurring, there will also be fewer employees to handle social distancing changes. Taken together these factors will make finding resources for the above outlined COVID-19 related changes a stressful challenge.

The HR Department Will Have To Lead Most Changes 

After the facilities department, HR will be the administrative function that will be responsible for implementing the most changes. But in most cases, we have found that few HR leaders are truly prepared for the upcoming required changes. For example, while everyone is home, the onboarding of new employees must change to 100% remote. And, although high unemployment will reduce the need for most employee retention efforts, the best performers will still have to be retained using resource-intense personalized retention plans. Union activity will surge.

Having a large percentage of remote workers will mean that all development and training will have to continue to be effective, even though it must be provided remotely. Learning and development will have to emphasize the use of podcasts, webinars, how-to videos, virtual reality, online, and Zoom facilitated learning. New professional development focus areas will need to include managing global teams, communicating using team platforms like Slack, and ensuring that remote workers do not feel isolated. To maintain productivity, the learning and development staff must find effective ways to educate their remote and on-site workforce so that they avoid catching the virus. HR leaders will have to revisit their productivity and innovation metrics to ensure that workforce performance increases during this troubling time. While simultaneously, HR and management must discourage attendance among their sick employees that could spread diseases.

To avoid future disruptions, workforce planning will have to be reinvigorated so that the organization is prepared for the many upcoming changes in talent supply and demand. Because there will likely be hiring and development budget freezes, there will be a dramatic rise in the importance of proactively guided internal movement. So, the remaining employees can be quickly redeployed and placed in “the right jobs” when corporate needs rapidly shift. 

Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, please take a moment to follow and/or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn and to subscribe to his weekly Talent Newsletter.

© Dr. John Sullivan 4/27/20, updated 5/10/20 for the DJS newsletter

Image from Pixabay.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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