At least half of the American labor force is working from home, and the question now confronting bosses isn’t when their employees can come back to the office but whether they should do so at all. More than two months into the quarantine, coronavirus testing, contact tracing, and treatment protocols are still works in progress in the United States, and a vaccine is still some time away.
Not coincidentally, employers keep pushing back their projected return dates. When offices do return, they may limit themselves—because of state orders or their own concerns about preventing employees from getting sick—to just 25 or 30 percent occupancy. But the quiet part of this dilemma needs to be said out loud now: When should you go back to the office? You shouldn’t.
Many people in a variety of industries—manufacturing, retail, transportation, health care, and more—cannot work from home, of course. Yet the pandemic has shown just how many companies can function adequately, even successfully, without placing all their employees in the same office. If you run an organization whose employees are more or less getting their work done at home, listen to that little voice in your head. Return to the office now? That’s crazy talk. I’m only telling you what you already know.
Going to the office has a few advantages: ergonomic furniture, mental separation between work and the rest of life, a daily motivation to dress like an adult and get out of the house. But the main point of going to the office is that all of your co-workers are there too.
Yet any return to work before a vaccine is available will have employees distanced, possibly masked. Many offices will operate with reduced occupancy. The places where people normally gather—conference rooms, the break room, the watercooler—may be off-limits. The corporate culture that so many employers prize is based on a level of interaction that will not be regained simply by being in the same building, let alone being in the same building with only a fraction of the workforce present. Until a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, corporate culture is over.
Sure, office planners can certainly envision a new workplace: new cubicle designs, touchless elevator buttons, ventilation-system upgrades to ensure fresh air, rigorous cleaning protocols, schedule shifting, and the closure of common spaces. Employers are looking to invest in their own testing systems—something the federal government has been unable or unwilling to set up—and may require temperature checks for all employees. It all sounds so grim, time-consuming, and expensive. If your morning routine wasn’t long enough already, you’ll love waiting in socially distanced lines to get your forehead scanned.
The other option for remote workers is: Just don’t go back.
Some employers—including Google and Facebook—have already extended work-from-home policies into late fall or early next year. That buys them time for governmental testing and tracing efforts to improve and for better treatments to become available. Twitter went a step further and is now allowing employees to work from home “forever.” That’s a long time. And lest anyone think liberal West Coast tech companies are the only ones making these moves, Fox News has extended its own work-from-home directive until June 15.
The Harvard public-health professor Joseph G. Allen—whose new book, Healthy Buildings, co-authored with the Harvard Business School professor John D. Macomber, may be one of the best timed in publishing history—has been advising companies on how they can return safely. Even if states allow businesses to be open, those businesses may be more cautious than their elected officials are. “Regardless of what governments say, right now we are still in a place where ‘work from home’ is the priority for workers that can. It’s the best hazard mitigation,” Allen told me. “That companies need to figure out how to bring people back safely is obvious. But that is different from the when.”
That when is not today, and the millions of Americans working from home should stay put.
Talk of returning to work seems like idle banter while children are still at home all the time. Why should employers invest in elaborate modifications to a workplace if, in six weeks, schools tell working parents that they have to stay home with their kids for many more months? Waiting seems prudent, especially considering that few major districts have announced their fall plans yet. Schools turn out to be a form of crucial infrastructure; as with water and electricity, if the education system is down, not much else can happen.
Corporate lawyers have a different set of concerns. Even as President Donald Trump demands that the nation reopen, his administration is failing to provide clear guidance on how to do so. Without such guidance, employers face unknown liability exposure, even when they are acting in good faith, if they expose employees to harm at or en route to work. This is why corporate America is desperately clamoring for protection against liability for coronavirus exposure. But they don’t have it yet.
The nation’s official health advisers also recommend that workers remain at home, if possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released watered-down guidance to employers late last week, after news reports suggested that the administration had blocked more detailed advice from the agency. Beyond telling employers to promote better hygiene and disinfect workspaces more often, it also urged them to encourage telework when feasible.
Insurers may well demand it. For the most part, employers are not well insured for a pandemic, and insurers are frequently denying coronavirus-related claims. Employers, in other words, will face financial pressure to better mitigate the risk. How? Well, one solution has been provided by the insurance industry itself. Nationwide announced recently that it would adopt a permanent hybrid work model, reducing its footprint to all but four facilities by the end of the year, for health and safety reasons.
Employees do not mind. Trump has claimed that “real people” are clamoring to get back to work and resume their lives outside of home confinement. But polls suggest that those “real people” do not exist in significant numbers. Support for social-distancing measures remains strong. A Gallup poll last month showed that most people who are working from home want to keep doing so after the crisis abates. Meanwhile, employees whose jobs require them to leave home express trepidation about doing so; 60 percent feared exposing their families to COVID-19. Even higher percentages of African American and Hispanic workers voiced such concerns.
The coronavirus has accelerated trends that were already under way. Companies were looking for ways to cut their spending on office space; many workers were eager to telecommute more often. Even assuming that remote work does put a dent in productivity or employee unity, bringing employees back is a high price to pay for corporate culture. The U.S. is fast approaching the 100,000-dead mark. We can’t go back to life before the pandemic. We have to get through it—and adapt. And, for the time being, that means more Zoom.
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