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3 reasons why the workplace can’t return to normal after COVID-19

Two researchers observe that many employees assume that “wartime working conditions” will end after the pandemic. But the researchers worry these practices and protocols could become the new normal.

3 reasons why the workplace can’t return to normal after COVID-19
[Photo: gpointstudio/iStock]

Organizations are in crisis mode, and workers are rising to the challenge amid the COVID-19 health emergency. Almost everyone in America who has a job that can be done remotely is now working from home, according to data compiled by Statista. Many are putting in long hours. They’re zooming into meetings, responding to Slack messages around the clock, and willingly blurring the boundary between their work and private lives in order to help their organizations succeed.

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Many employees assume that when the crisis is over, these “wartime working conditions” will end and things will go back to the way they were. But worryingly, these practices and protocols could become the new normal. Employers are embracing technology to increase demands on employees’ time and keep close tabs on how much they’re working. Employees, meanwhile, are leaning into virtual meetings in a way that could have negative long-term effects on their welfare.

On one hand, organizations are just trying to survive. They’re grappling with massive disruptions to their businesses and making tough choices at a challenging time. On the other hand, this over-reliance on technology has dangerous implications for workers’ productivity, creativity, and overall well-being. Here are three of the most significant myths.

The myth of the ideal worker will live on

The COVID-19 pandemic offers a vivid illustration that the myth of the “ideal worker”—the person who puts work above everything else and exhibits a single-minded devotion to their company—is not dead. Despite the fact that most white-collar office employees are working remotely, employers’ obsession with face time and constant availability is making a comeback. Employees are expected to work harder and longer—attend numerous online meetings and team check-ins, and immediately respond to emails and calls. Employees are on the back foot here. The fight to stop the spread of the coronavirus, with its lockdowns and social distancing, means that most people are homebound, so there’s no excuse not to be available.

Of course, working at this pace is unsustainable. It’s not only exhausting, but it also robs employees of time to engage in healthy behaviors—including sleep, exercise, and spending time with loved ones. What’s more, research shows that individual creativity requires time away from work. People need time to disconnect.

This virus will retreat eventually, but it’s not a given that these new expectations will do the same. Employers are setting a standard for employee commitment and accessibility. It will be hard for employees to reset expectations even when workers are back in the office.

Big Brother will further encroach on the workplace

The pandemic’s forced experiment in remote work has caused a degree of unease in certain corners of corporate America. Apparently, some employers worry that workers cannot be trusted to do their jobs without supervision. As a result, they’re turning to surveillance software to track employees’ productivity and using analytics tools to measure workers’ engagement.

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To organizations, this level of monitoring may feel necessary. After all, they have a vested interest in keeping close tabs on what their workers are doing. But the surveillance is chipping away at workplace privacy. And there’s a risk that employers maintain this heightened level of scrutiny and constant observation after the crisis recedes.

Workplace communities will erode

Before the coronavirus hit, employees spent untold hours at the office talking with colleagues in the hallway or around the coffee machine. They discussed solutions to problems, provided advice, and served as sounding boards to their coworkers’ challenges. Occasionally, they shot the breeze and chatted about weekend plans. For the time being, this crisis is robbing them of those kinds of social interactions.

The question is: After the emergency passes—and employees are allowed once again to meet in person—will they? Or will they be so accustomed to connecting via laptops and portable devices that they won’t bother? It’s likely that even when colleagues are safely allowed to meet face-to-face, they may decide it’s easier and more convenient to continue to meet screen-to-screen. And that will be a shame. Those conversations and interactions are vital for employees’ mental and physical health, their professional ties, and importantly, they are the glue that holds organizations together. Over-depending on technology undermines those things.

Technology has been our savior both personally and professionally at these unprecedented times. Lockdowns and quarantines are hard on the soul. Doing them without the ability to Skype with friends and colleagues, stream presentations and TV shows, or download data and podcasts would make this already difficult time downright unbearable.

Moreover, technology provides much-needed doses of humanity to our virtual work lives. Glimpsing the personal lives of our colleagues during virtual meetings—cute toddlers waddling around in the background, wagging golden retrievers, and so on—feels like a gift.

But technology has dark sides, too. Organizations and employees alike must be mindful of these potentially dangerous disadvantages, and both must work to prevent technology’s tremendous positives from turning into perilous negatives.

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Zoran Latinovic is a visiting postdoctoral scientist at MIT Sloan School of Management, Management Science. Sharmila C. Chatterjee is a senior lecturer in marketing and the academic head for the Enterprise Management Track at the school.

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