13 ways the coronavirus pandemic could forever change the way we work

4.30.20 (2)

In only a few months, the coronavirus pandemic has upended the daily lives of people around the world. For Americans, the economic impact of the virus has led to new categorizations of “essential” workers, a large-scale move to remote work, and skyrocketing unemployment that is expected to continue increasing. 

With more than 26 million people filing for unemployment in the past five weeks, the U.S. is predicted to experience a coronavirus-induced recession through 2021.

And amid stay-at-home orders across the country, office workers have ditched their daily commutes to work from dining room tables, couches, and beds in their own homes. Many may find themselves in this situation for the long haul, as businesses struggle to find a path forward while restrictions slowly lift.

But what other changes will we see in the coming months and years? CNBC Make It spoke to futurists, employment experts, CEOs, designers and more to find out how the pandemic could forever transform the way we work.

Working in an office could become a status symbol

Following the pandemic, it’s likely that more Americans will split their time between working from home and from a corporate office, says Brent Capron, the design director of interiors at architecture firm Perkins and Will’s New York studio.

“People will still gather for work,” he says. “But the amount of time you work in proximity with others, and what your work week looks like — I see that to be the biggest cultural shift moving forward.”

With more people working remotely, companies may open regional hubs or provide access to co-working spaces wherever their workers are concentrated rather than have the majority of their workforce at one central office.

As a result, corporate headquarters may become a status symbol for the companies that still have the budget and a workforce big enough to warrant pricey real estate in a major city.

A company’s investment in its headquarters could become a way to recruit talent, says Jane Oates, president of WorkingNation, a nonprofit campaign about unemployment, and a former assistant secretary at the Department of Labor. 

Job seekers may consider it a draw to work for a company with a physical location, which could boost brand awareness and overall influence within the industry. 

Most meetings could be replaced by email and IM

Expect your post-pandemic work calendar to contain fewer meetings overall, says Nadjia Yousif, managing director and partner of Boston Consulting Group’s London office

The pandemic has been a technological equalizer of sorts, she says, where people previously unaccustomed to using tech tools in the workplace have had no choice but to adapt. And in some cases, workers are becoming more efficient.

“People have been more patient in learning new technologies and engaging with them, simply because they’ve had to,” Yousif says. “I think those best practices will live on. I think we’re all developing new muscles to work virtually.”

To that end, expect a generally more agile way of working and communicating with colleagues: More meetings will become emails, and more emails will become instant messages.

For team members who no longer work together in a central office, phone calls and meetings may move to video. This could help to build trust among workers who can’t interact in person, Yousif says. 

When you’re able to pick up on nonverbal cues, or you’re invited into a colleague’s home via video chat, “a different type of intimacy is formed in a faster way than would happen in a traditional working environment,” she says.

It could be the end of business travel as we know it

As travel of all kinds is halted, telecommuting is adopted at scale and companies attempt to cut costs and balance their budgets, many experts believe business trips as we know them will be a thing of the past

“I don’t think [business travel] is ever going to be exactly the same,” says Gary Leff, a travel industry expert and author of the blog View from the Wing.

Changing consumer preferences and greater interest in social distancing will limit large group events such as conferences and conventions for the foreseeable future, says Leff, and permanently decrease the volume of business travel.

Additionally, Leff expects that during this time, companies will learn that some business travel is unnecessary and can be done via video meetings. He also points out as organizations attempt to recoup their pandemic-related losses, travel budgets will be cut. 

Office buildings could become ‘elaborate conference centers’

With the office building recast as the ultimate status symbol, its main purpose could shift.

“Does office space strictly become elaborate conference centers?” asks Capron. He predicts office buildings of the future may become facilities to gather, while focused work is done remotely.

This could mean fewer walled-off offices and more gathering spaces to host meetings, conferences, and other company-wide events. 

Beyond that, the open office floor plan will likely stick around. Despite criticism that they kill productivity, it’s likely companies will still use the layout in an effort to lower real estate costs.

Open layouts will change, however: Desks could become spaced out, partitions could go up, cleaning stations stocked with hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes will become the norm, and workers may seek out spaces for focused work, such as privacy booths. Capron stops short of saying cubicles will make a comeback.

Agile workspaces with unassigned seating will decline in popularity. Workers will want the security and control of having a personal space they come to every day or every few days and can clean frequently.

In shared spaces, expect more touchless fixtures, such as door sensors, automatic sinks and soap dispensers, and voice-activated elevator banks. 

Architects may also design spaces with durable building materials, furniture, flooring, and other surfaces that can stand up to frequent deep-cleaning, which is expected to be a lasting necessity of the future workplace for years to come.