Originally Written by David Judge – via forbes.com – July 21. 2020

Fortune 500 CEOs expect 43% of their workforce to be working from home through January 2021, and 36% of their workforce to be working from home through January 2022.

Those numbers are up from 13% before the pandemic and reflect a massive shift in workplace culture.

Working from home (WFH) is no longer a benefit to drive recruitment or a business strategy by progressive start-ups. For those of us fortunate to have jobs that can, WFH may be a permanent new normal.

Remote Work Will Define The Landscape of The Future of Work

Digital transformation has sped up for brands during the pandemic as they worked to ensure all the necessities to keep business moving forward, were available online for employees.

While this is comforting news for the economy, in which thousands can maintain steady jobs and paychecks while quarantining or social distancing, this has raised serious questions about decades (and centuries) of infrastructure built for dense, in-person collaboration and gathering.

For instance:

  • There is no social distancing possible in elevators, rendering skyscrapers in major economic hubs around the world inefficient.
  • Neither open office floor plans nor cubicles offer the kind of social distancing or sanitation best practices required to make employees feel comfortable going back to an office environment.
  • Even basic building infrastructure is now painfully and obviously built for a different era, with little to no proper air ventilation, and a substantial number of facility systems depending on a human to turn them on or off.

It’s likely that over the next decade, not only will working from home become commonplace, but we will see cities with lower density becoming the new economic hubs, and revitalization of depressed areas where buildings can be built to current needs. What this will mean for New York City, London, San Francisco, and countless cities around the world is yet to be seen, but the prognosis is not good.

Such change will be dramatic, and it will, of course, produce its winners and losers. There will be new tradeoffs, new benefits and downsides.

The Benefits of Working From Home

Working from home makes sense for so many in our digital world, for instance:

  • It will mean talent isn’t defined by geography.
  • It will mean smaller suburban and rural economies around the world will be infused with additional cash as city-dwellers move to lower cost locations.
  • It will mean less pollution and carbon emissions from a reduction in commuting traffic.
  • It will mean employees can do their best work in an environment of their own choosing and making.

These are all certainty positives. But this new normal isn’t without its challenges.

  • Not everyone can safely or effectively work from home. Offices have long been safe havens of productivity and identity for parents, or for those in challenging at-home relationships or family situations. How can employers make their workplaces safe for those who can’t work from home?
  • Not everyone has a social system to protect against isolation and loneliness. These are issues that plague our modern world, and one that offices can help to buffer against with routine, daily interaction, and the building of a team and a community.

Even just these two work from home challenges point, in the short term, to an inability for businesses to simply exit their office obligations.

Employees still need a dedicated space, and that space needs to be safe –– against the pandemic, against difficult social situations, and against our own capacity for loneliness in a world potentially more isolated than it has been in centuries.

To do this, there is some low hanging fruit.

  • Encourage the use of low-tech solutions, make them widespread and socially accepted. Much of the spread of the pandemic is airborne, and companies who provide masks (and other PPE) to their workforce will help to increase confidence in a safe work environment.
  • Disinfectants will need to be just about everywhere, and new policies may need to require employees use those disinfectants often. No longer will they be relegated only to the bathrooms.
  • Broad office policies will change, especially regarding human density. There will be a limit to the number of employees that can be in the office at once, and even individual spaces within the offices. Chairs will need to be removed from meeting rooms, and the entire office will need to be spaced out to allow for easy, 6 feet or more distancing.

And then, there are infrastructure changes that require the use of newer technologies.

  • By reducing the amount of people who can be in the office at any point in time, you are also increasing the per person cost of the space dramatically. Businesses will need to infuse more intelligence into existing systems so you can turn off lights without anyone there, or alter the heating or air conditioning, dependent on how many people are using the space.
  • To help even monitor employees in the office, access controls will go up. Booking access to your own office will be the new normal. Not everyone who has a desk will be allowed to use it, at least not all the time.
  • Technology can also help to enforce density controls. Infrared technology that was originally built to track movement in retail stores may now move to offices, where office managers can identify where people are gathering to help enforce safety policies or improve office movement and natural flow with inventive architecture or interior design.

Finally, businesses will need to alter social structures to make space for employee collaboration and camaraderie.

Internal organizations may designate teams within a workplace that creates a sort of COVID bubble. This is your work “family.” You go to the office on the same days and at the same times. And if someone gets sick, you all stay home, get tested, and don’t return until it is safe to do so.

As employers and employees rethink what it means to go back to work, and why they would, businesses need to rethink the purpose of the “office” as a whole. How companies are able to create policies that allow for both productivity and purpose is the key to attracting younger talent, and the best way to protect experienced employees, for whom the pandemic is even more dangerous.

This is about how we go back to work differently than before. It is about how we make it safe. It is about how we make it worthwhile. It is about how we infuse our human needs into a workplace environment that works better for us all.