Published on May 07, 2020

  • Offices as we've known them "won't be back anytime soon," but new scenarios depend on the type of business. 
  • Employees are reporting increased satisfaction with their employers and are embracing telework opportunities, saying they feel as or more productive.
  • Businesses that wish to reopen need to consider physical infrastructure, elevator usage, shift times, and procedures for clocking in.
  • Workplace changes being discussed include routine temperature checks and health screenings.

Video Transcript


JOHN WHYTE: With stay-at-home orders lifting and businesses starting to reopen, what does the office environment look like? I sat down just a little while ago with Tony Lee who offered his insights as to whether or not we're going to need doors that open automatically and elevators that respond to voice. What's the future? Take a listen. Tony, thanks for joining me.

TONY LEE: Thanks, John. Happy to be here.

JOHN WHYTE: There was a great piece on NPR the other day. You've seen it. It says the office as we knew it isn't coming back anytime soon. Maybe it's changed forever. Is the office changed forever?

TONY LEE: IT really depends on the office. And remember, a workplace for a lot of people isn't an office at all. It could be a factory floor, it could be out on a hanging telephone line. So it really depends on the employee and the situation. But certainly there are a lot of changes to the typical workplace that we never would have expected a couple of months ago.

JOHN WHYTE: And what are some of those changes? Obviously, the biggest one is telework and working from home. What are you hearing from members about the experience from the perspective of the employer and the employee?

TONY LEE: Well, SHRM research has found a lot of interesting things. Employees are really embracing remote work when they have that opportunity. They feel like they're as, if not more productive than they had been coming into the office. Certainly there's, depending on their circumstances, they're no longer commuting, so that time can be used. And in many cases, employees have more workload, and so they're spending more time because they're so accessible doing their jobs.

There are a lot of challenges to it as well. There are technological challenges. Folks needed to get their proper equipment to be able to work remotely. And smaller companies especially have struggled a bit with that. There are broadband inequities. Some folks have dial-up. Some folks have nothing. And so companies have had to take steps to try and address that too.

JOHN WHYTE: And what are the concerns in terms of the physical infrastructure of an office? There has been talk about need to change HVAC, need to change the times that employees come in to shift the number of workers that are in the office or in the plant. What are you hearing about that?

TONY LEE: Well, frankly, we've published a lot about it on and have posted a number of webcast on it too because, frankly, this is something that our members care very deeply about. The number one thing that every workplace will say is that worker safety is their number one priority, and they're not going to risk anyone's safety by bringing them back to the office. So we've created very long checklists of what HR departments are going through to try and make it safe.

At a high level, we're talking about employee health screening. Are you taking people's temperatures when they come in? We're talking about, obviously, maintaining all social distancing. But in an office environment, especially, that can be pretty tricky. Does that mean spreading out the cubes within an open office space so that they're not on top of one another?

JOHN WHYTE: Is the open office space gone for the future?

TONY LEE: I'm not sure that it's gone. I think as long as it's distanced it's going to be OK. What you're going to see are conference rooms probably aren't going to be used for conferences so much. You'll see more office work area moved into conference rooms.

Elevators, I think a lot of people will be taking the stairs or something will be set up with an elevator so that there are wipes when you touch the numbers to go where you're going. A lot of folks clock in when they arrive and when they depart. That's disappearing. You're seeing apps come in to handle that for a lot of places.

Certainly, the idea that anyone who feels even slightly unwell is encouraged not to come in, so that's going to be stronger. So there are going to be a lot of changes that I think folks will get accustomed to. One more that's worth mentioning, a lot of folks enjoy eating together-- lunchtime, dinner time. You're not going to see a lot of that either. I think you'll see a lot more people eating at their desks.

JOHN WHYTE: But where are we getting the guidelines? Because much of the data are gray. They're not necessarily black and white. So some could argue the elevator isn't necessarily a dangerous place if people are wearing facial coverings. We just don't touch a knob and then, all of a sudden, we get coronavirus. It is about hand-washing. How do you draw the line? Because many of these measures may be impractical for some offices, but they also want to inspire confidence with employees that it's safe to come back. So a lot of folks have been saying, where are we getting guidance for some of these guidances that we're giving out in terms of what offices should do and what they should look like?

TONY LEE: Well I kind of think of it as two streams of guidance. So there's formal guidance. You are getting guidance from the CDC. You are getting guidance from OSHA, even EEOC, Department of Labor. There doesn't seem to be a government agency that's not creating guidance.

The flip-side is the commonsense guidance. And I think we just talked about a lot of those. And frankly, folks are turning to us, to SHRM, to say, OK, what guidance should we be instituting at our company? And so we're doing everything we can to create that kind of guidance. When you talk about bringing people back to work, for example, I have already heard, just in the last couple of weeks, 20 different types of plans. Let's bring all the people with last name A to L in on Mondays and M to Z on Tuesdays. Let's bring everyone who was born from January to June in on Thursdays.

I actually heard a very interesting one last night from a company that has started bringing people back. And basically what they did was say, let's ask every people manager, everyone who has folks reporting to them, prioritize your team as to who needs to be in the office to do their work best. And if we're shooting for, say, a 20% response of employees by mid-May, which 2 out of every 10 employees really need to be in the office? Then let's see if we can get those folks in.

And then if we're looking at mid-June getting up to 40%, OK, well, which 4 of every 10 really need to be in the office? And how do you space it so you don't stress people out? Some people don't want to have to come in every day and deal with the commute and public transportation, perhaps, and other challenges of even getting to work. So, be a substitute. Those are the types of common sense pieces that I think a lot of companies are starting to figure out.

JOHN WHYTE: Do you think there is going to be tension? And how might it be resolved by those employers who want employees to come back to work, and they feel they're making adequate safeguards, reminding there is middle ground, and employees who just don't feel safe coming back? Have you provided guidance as to how to manage that potential difference of opinion? And honestly, there could be some conflicts.

TONY LEE: Yeah, to be honest, we published several articles about that, and they're the most popular things that we published.

JOHN WHYTE: What do they say? Tell us what they say.

TONY LEE: So what basically what they say is, look, it's really smart to take a case-by-case approach. There are certain employees who have an auto-immune issue, for example. So obviously, anyone who has a physical reason-- and whether it's them personally or someone within their household, they're caring for a parent, they're caring for a child, their spouse has an issue-- all of that has to be taken into consideration. And so, frankly, it's just not wise to force someone like that to come back to a physical office. It just doesn't make sense. And so employers get that, and they're showing flexibility there.

The question is, is fear a reason not to bring someone back? And I think what most employers are doing are saying, OK, I understand your fear. Let me explain to you what we're doing to try and mitigate the risk. No workplace is completely risk-free. A year ago they weren't risk-free. Things happen. So here are the things we're doing to try and mitigate that risk and hopefully reduce your fear so that you feel better about coming back. We have seen more mental health issues in the last couple of months among employees than perhaps ever. And employee assistance programs that are in place for a lot of companies, the phones are ringing off the hook. So taking all that into account, I think what companies are doing is saying, OK, if we have folks who are comfortable coming back in and who need to come back in, then those are the folks we should focus on first.

And once we establish a pattern, and once we establish a workplace with people who are coming and going every day safely, those who are fearful about coming back likely will become more accepting and more understanding of what it's like to come back in, assuming they need to come back in, assuming that they are not productive working remotely and can't continue to be productive working remotely.

JOHN WHYTE: What are you optimistic about?

TONY LEE: Several things, actually. It feels like employee engagement has actually improved over the last couple of months, meaning that employees who feel like they're being well taken care of by their companies, who are being communicated to well, who are given the resources to work from home or work in whatever way they need to safely, feel pretty good about their companies, feel like their companies are taking good care of them. So I think that's a bit of a change. Six months ago, a lot of employees were cynical and, with a very tight job market, were constantly watching the landscape for their next job opportunity. And I think that's changed.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, Tony, I want to thank you for joining us.

TONY LEE: My pleasure, John. Thank you.

JOHN WHYTE: And I want to thank you for watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte.