Now that COVID-19 vaccines are finally here, employers have begun looking ahead to an eventual full return to the workplace in the coming months. But even though their offices may look exactly as they did last spring when most white-collar organizations shifted to remote operations, they will find that things will be very different, say Harvard Business School (HBS) faculty who study the work world.
The pandemic has sped up macro trends in consumer behavior, business management, and hiring. That, along with insights gained by months of adjustments to work roles, schedules, routines, and priorities, have prompted employers and employees to reconsider many default assumptions about what they do along with how and why they do it.
The changes will vary by field and employer, but experts predict flexibility and safety will be top priorities that could bring, for instance, a rethinking of the five-day work week and the way employees earn and spend vacation time. Also, the power dynamics between employers and employees will shift as each reappraise the other’s roles in light of what they learned during the pandemic. And organizations will likely give more attention to employees’ mental health care, getting a closer look at the daily personal pressures their staffs face.
“It’s the Next Normal we’re headed to, not ‘back to normal,’ and that, for a lot of companies, is going to feature changes in work practices, changes in employee expectations of their employer, and companies learning from this duress about what they can do to be more effective and efficient and attractive employers,” said Joseph B. Fuller, professor of management practice and co-founder of Managing the Future of Work project at HBS.
One of the first challenges businesses face will be the question of whether to ask, or even insist, that employees be vaccinated before coming back to work. For a variety of reasons, not everyone will agree to do so, leaving employers to struggle with how to protect their other employees, customers, and clients, while not violating civil rights laws.
One year into the pandemic, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal regulatory agency that oversees private sector workplace safety in all 50 states, had not established national COVID safety standards under President Trump, leaving individual companies and industries, like meatpacking, to set their own protocols and policies.
“It’s bananas to entrust our public health decisions to disaggregated, atomized employers making their own decisions about what’s good enough and what’s not,” said Terri Ellen Gerstein, director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program. “With OSHA abdicating its responsibility, that’s been happening in too many places.”