Office Work: Will We Ever Go Back?

As the governments lift stay-at-home emergency orders, organizations are grappling with what it means to reopen offices. What will change? Will telework be the new normal? Let's explore.

by / May 2, 2020

By any measure, the number of professionals working from home (WFH) has skyrocketed during the pandemic. Public and private sector organizations quickly adopted telework practices for many staff, and in most cases, the results have been better than expected.

So will we ever go back to the way things were before the pandemic? New studies suggest the answer is no, and expanded telework may be a lasting positive result from this global pandemic. Even for those who are heading back to the office in coming months, get ready for massive changes and many months of social distancing between people, wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and much more.

Here are some recent media headlines and snippets of relevant stories on this surge in telework and coming next steps:

Forbes: Will We Return To The Office After COVID-19?

“Firstly, how has work changed during the pandemic? Data from software company Box highlights that one of the first casualties of the shift to home working has been the traditional 9-5 office hours. With many of us juggling home and family responsibilities, especially with school closures placing expectations of home schooling onto working parents, Box found that lunch breaks are a luxury many can no longer afford, with work done outside office hours growing by 20%.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, their data also reveals that digital collaboration is growing, not least in the public sector, where collaboration has risen by 142%. …”

Thenextweb.com: Office work will never feel the same after the coronavirus pandemic

“Working from home means I don’t have to go anywhere. It’s perfect! It gives me the freedom to do what I want and work still. This is the perfect job for me because the office is boring. In the 21st century you don’t have to be around people to communicate with them. You can use Skype; you can use Hangouts; you can use anything. You have a lot of opportunities!”

The Irish Times: Will we ever go back to sitting in an office?

“The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past,” said Jes Staley of Barclays. “Maybe we don’t need all the offices that we currently have around the world,” mused Mondelez’s Dirk van de Put, while Sergio Ermotti said UBS was already thinking about moving out of expensive city-centre offices.

A PwC survey this week found that a quarter of chief financial officers were already thinking of cutting back on real estate, while the Site Selectors Guild, whose members help companies locate new buildings, said half of US office searches had been put on hold since the crisis hit.

New Survey Says: Most Workers Prefer Telework

Another interesting aspect flowing from WFH during this pandemic has been a change in employee expectations regarding work from home programs moving forward.  

In a new survey by Blind, the anonymous professional network with 3.5MM+ verified professionals, it is clear that the majority of professionals prefer to work from home. Here are the key findings from 2,500 responses in late April:

  • 64% of professionals prefer to continue working from home after the coronavirus restrictions lift
  • 71% of Amazon professionals prefer to continue working from home after the coronavirus restrictions lift
  • Over 60% of Microsoft, Uber, Salesforce, Lyft and Intel professionals prefer to continue working from home after the coronavirus restrictions lift
  • 64% of professionals are less likely to use shared/common spaces
  • 71% of Microsoft professionals are less likely to use shared/common spaces
  • 90% of professionals expect a flexible WFH policy to persist
  • More than 90% of professionals at Amazon, Google, Uber, Salesforce and Oracle expect a flexible WFH policy to persist
  • 93% of finance industry professionals expect a flexible WFH policy to persist


On Friday May 1, 2020, I moderated a global webinar (available to view with free BrightTALK registration at this link), titled: Back to the Office — or Not? Next Steps in Pandemic Technology Response. The participants were:

Speakers:
- Dan Lohrmann, Chief Security Officer & Chief Strategist at Security Mentor Inc.
- Earl Duby, CISO at Lear Corp.
- Vinod Brahmapuram, CISO for state of Washington government

Note: Scott Larsen, CISO of a large health-care provider, was not able to participate due to a last-minute change.

Here’s a synopsis:

As the United States enters a new phase in COVID-19 response, how are businesses and governments responding? What lessons have been learned, and what next steps are organizations taking? How can technology and cybersecurity mistakes be avoided?

This webinar covers the latest coronavirus playbook roundup and recommendations on how to address the next phase of the outbreak. Learn the scope of the unprecedented challenges organizations are currently facing. Hear from industry leaders on how they are addressing the COVID-19 security and technology challenges.

By popular demand, this webinar is a follow-up to the immensely successful BrightTALK session held on March 13 at the beginning of this emergency. That webcast (link in Attachments): Coronavirus Actions and Risks for Tech and Security Leaders, was viewed thousands of times, and numerous attendees asked for this update.

Topics include:
- Policy, technology and process steps to take today to protect your workforce and organization.
- Lessons learned from more staff working from home (telework)?
- What mistakes can be avoided as staff prepare to go back to offices — and how?

During the webinar, I found the answers to the webinar poll questions to be very intriguing. With a global audience of over 330 people, here were the results from participants:  

Q: Are you working from home now?

  • Yes, and was (usually) working from home before the pandemic — 33%
  • Yes, and was (usually) working from the office before the pandemic — 57%
  • No, one of the few still working at the office — holding down the fort — 5%
  • No, I was furloughed or laid off because of the pandemic — 2%
  • No, I was unemployed before the pandemic — 2%

Q: If you are still employed and working from home temporarily, when do you currently expect to move back to the office?

  • In the next month — 24%
  • In the next two months (by July 1) — 34%
  • Sometime this summer, but after July 1 — 21%
  • Probably this fall (Sept - Dec), if there is not a second wave of COVID-19 — 11%
  • I'm not moving back to that office this year — plan to telework longer-term (perhaps forever) — 8%

Q: If you are working from home temporarily, is the cybersecurity you have in place for your technology good enough?

  • Yep! Bring on James Bond — 19%
  • Probably, but there might be a few holes — 49%
  • We've got some improvements to make — 19%
  • Not really, minimal guidance and I am just hoping no one notices — 10%
  • Get ready for data breach headlines — 1%

During our BrightTALK webinar, Earl Duby, the CISO at Lear, offered this helpful resource called the “Lear Safe Work Playbook.” Here’s a brief excerpt from the Lear playbook content overview:

“While it is not a one-size-fits-all approach, the Safe Work Playbook includes practical recommendations, based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization, that could be tailored by businesses to address various scenarios they may face when returning to work. Regular updates will be made to the playbook based on real-time feedback.The manual covers a wide range of topics, including:

  • Step-by-step guides for setting up a pandemic response team
  • Cleaning and disinfection procedures
  • Staggering shifts and lunch breaks and other social distancing strategies
  • Onsite health screenings
  • Protocols for isolating employees who become ill at work

This has been a difficult time for everyone, and re-establishing a workplace where employees feel comfortable performing their jobs safely is a multi-faceted challenge. It is our hope that by sharing this resource we can help your organization accomplish the same goals, as everyone adapts to new operating protocols in today’s still challenging conditions. …”

Lasting Impact from Pandemic Actions

According to CNBC, as working from home became more widespread, many now say they don’t want to go back to former practices.

“Once the economy reopens, 24% say they’d like to work either entirely or more from home compared to how they worked before, while 55% plan to head back to the office.

Some 60% report being either as productive, or more productive, than they were working from the office. …”

Newsweek also ran this headline story stating that the coronavirus will change how we work forever.

As employees get used to the benefits, the number of remote workers will rise; businesses can use it as a bargaining chip to recruit and retain top talent. "Companies will see remote work as a competitive advantage," says Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence. "Time and time again, workers have prioritized flexibility as part of their job search criteria — and now as they taste the benefits of it, the demand will only grow. …"

And for some, the convenience just doesn't trump the isolation — no matter how many video conferences you throw at them. "I'm an introvert who lives with a cat," says Justin Sanak, 29, who works for a government contractor in Plano, Texas. "I need time at home to recharge my batteries. But batteries aren't meant to be charging forever. I'm ready to be back at the office."

Final Thoughts

In conversations with numerous CISOs, CTOs and CIOs in the public and private sector over the past month, I keep hearing a common theme that we are never going back to the ways things were before the pandemic.

One aspect of this has been overcoming the huge reluctance that many middle managers felt toward their staff working from home. But now, because there was no other option during the pandemic, many of the reasons (or arguments to not allow telework) have been overcome by necessity. Those former arguments are not only invalid, many managers now enjoy teleworking themselves.

No doubt, every organization is different and the future will look very different after a vaccine is widely available worldwide — likely before the end of 2021 at the latest. Another huge change will be how we approach business (and leisure) travel and attending conferences for the foreseeable future.

The reopening of schools also seem to be in flux across the country with NYC saying there is only a 50-50 chance of schools opening in September, while California Gov. Newsom suggesting L.A. schools may open in July. Colleges and universities are also struggling with answers for their campuses safely reopening. These school situations will also impact parents expected to be home with children.

But over the next year, “the new normal” regarding working from home is being rewritten within business areas based on a long list of factors. And despite government restrictions being lifted, many staff have already decided that they don’t want to go back to the office anytime soon.

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