It’s becoming increasingly apparent that COVID-19 will change our world forever—especially the way we work. As more employees become more accustomed to their “new normal,” companies are realizing that once things start opening back up, not everyone is going to want to return to their traditional offices.
At the Fiber Broadband Association’s latest Fiber for Breakfast live video series, industry experts Janet Shijns, CEO of the JS Group, and Adam Zuckerman, Eisenhower Fellow and emerging technology and future of work strategist, discussed how companies around the world will have to start grappling with employees working outside of the workplace and how strong internet will play an important role.
“The reality is, we’re never going to go back to normal,” Zuckerman said. “And the normal we were in was a situation that led to what we have today: We had dense office areas and we weren’t wearing masks. Ramping the system back up is much more complex than shutting it down.”
Both Shijns and Zuckerman predict it will become the new norm for companies to allow working from home on a regular and/or permanent basis. And even if they aren’t thrilled with employees working outside the office, it’s possible they won’t have a choice for a long time.
Despite states slowly opening up their economies, many offices simply don’t have the safety measures to operate with lots of people. Many major companies, like Twitter, have announced they won’t send employees back to work until late this year or early next year, if ever.
And for good reason, said Shijns. Traditional office buildings are not typically outfitted for social distancing measures, and don’t currently have things like body scanners for temperature readings.
“No one is in a rush to get back to work, especially if they have invested in an open floor plan that was meant to stimulate creativity, but just stimulates germs,” Shijns said. “And a large portion of the workforce is at risk, or they’re caring for someone who is at risk. Corporate lawyers are very nervous about the risks they entail about bringing people back.”
A shift in work-from-home employees was already happening before the virus. As more Millennials moved into the workplace, they emphasized the importance of flexible work hours, including the ability to work from home. Now that people are being forced to work from their homes, workers and companies are seeing the benefits—especially in productivity.
“The genie doesn’t go back in the bottle,” Shijns said.
Zuckerman said the ball is now in companies’ court. Companies need to start thinking about how they’re going to accommodate employees working remotely. They should think about what kind of technology they need to equip their employees with—including any security software they might need—and how they can deliver it in a safe and effective manner.
“Eventually people who have extra space will have a dropkit sent to their house with all the technology they should be using,” he said. “The benefits and services we’ve spent on employees are now being moved to the home.”
This move will also require a utility shift as well. As working from home becomes more common for a longer period of time, companies will have to consider the strength of internet service providers. Companies may begin paying for their employees to get faster internet than they currently have, or working with ISPs to offer exclusives or deals.
It might also force ISPs to reconsider how they operate. Will they expand their fiber backbones to be closer to larger residential spaces? Will fiber demand see a swift increase—therefore increasing fiber construction? And will companies now start leaning on ISPs to offer more reliable residential services?
“This means you’re going to have to build an even bigger infrastructure,” Shijns said. “It’s very easy to say, ‘work from home,’ until the reality of working from home sets in and people begin struggling with the technology they have.”
But it won’t just be a physical shift—it will be a mental one as well. Bosses will no longer be able to measure productivity merely by someone showing up. Companies are going to have to start evaluating performance by more concrete measures: tasks completed and contributions to projects.
“Companies are going to start to look at what you are actually doing,” Zuckerman said. “And when that happens, you have to find out what is most effective for everyone. Maybe you’re most effective at 6 a.m. Maybe you’re most effective at 10 a.m. It’s asking, ‘How can we put the trust on employees to do what they need to do?’”
What’s going to be key for companies in the coming months is to be adaptive and agile. Knowing the workforce won’t go back to the way it used to be, it’s important to be responsive to their employee needs and innovative in their new approach.
“This could be a precursor to something that is far worse with another pandemic,” Zuckerman said. “So companies need to start thinking about how they can put something into action that gives you long-term sustainability, not just something that works now.”