What will workplaces look like in a brave new post-pandemic world?

When businesses and organizations reopen, employees may not recognize the jobs they’re going back to
By Steve Paikin - Published on Apr 20, 2020
Experts say that there will be new questions and expectations when more workplaces reopen. (iStock.com/Stratol)

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Can you imagine what the workplace will be like once we’ve flattened the curve of the COVID-19 outbreak and most of us are back on the job? Experts are already hard at work thinking about what the new normal will look like post-pandemic. For many, it’ll be a brave new world. 

“There’ll be rigorous testing of employees,” says Anita McGahan, professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “And employers may be asked to administer those tests.”

“Inevitably, our employers will become agents of the government,” predicts Nicola Lacetera, associate professor of strategic management of the University of Toronto Mississauga and at Rotman. “There’s going to be a new partnership, while respecting basic principles.” 

“There’ll be a whole new set of questions about what’s appropriate for employers to request of their employees,” says Tiff Macklem, the dean at Rotman and a former deputy governor of the Bank of Canada, adding that he suspects employees may be prepared to give up certain privacy rights in exchange for safer workplaces. 

These are some of the comments I heard last Friday during a virtual symposium on reopening the economy. Hosted by Macklem, it was part of the Rotman Insights Webinar Series.  

Some of the most basic freedoms we enjoyed in the past may also become a thing of the past. Will employers, for example, have the ability to deny their employees the right to visit any country they want — with whichever family members they choose — during their private vacations? 

“Privacy is the province of the privileged,” says McGahan. “You don’t have the luxury of worrying about it if you’re living in a favela or low-income community.” 

Even though we’re in the midst of the worst health-care and economic calamity in a century, many people are already thinking about what a reopened economy will look like.  Many businesses, no doubt, won’t survive to experience that new world. Others will be born because of it. 

“We’re going to need even more ingenuity once we’re back at work,” says Macklem.  

How will the reopening happen? In stages, to be sure, but which sectors will lead the way? 

“It’s unquestionable there’ll be no early reopening in retail, air transportation, cruise ships, and sports,” says McGahan. “Until we get herd immunity, it makes no sense to gather in stadiums.” Or in classrooms, McGahan adds: the notion of students gathering in large numbers, as they did before the pandemic, just isn’t on — and won’t be for a while. 

McGahan predicts that employees will have myriad questions about the workplaces to which they’ll return. How will we maintain physical distancing at the office? Will we put tape on the floor? How will we schedule regular hand-washing breaks while at work? How will younger people, who are less at risk, report to their (probably older) superiors if the latter are still in self-quarantine?

Lacetera figures that workplaces will also have to decide whether to “nudge” people into more socially responsible behaviour and actively enforce new workplace rules. He adds that it will be imperative to treat everyone equally — no preferential treatment for staff (as opposed to contract) employees. 

Those are just some of the practical questions. What about some of the more emotional ones? Many of us claim we can’t wait to get back to our old lives at the office. But the idea that everyone will be champing at the bit to return may not be accurate. 

“There’s likely to be a hangover of fear, suffering, and pain,” says McGahan. “People may be afraid to be at work. They may be frail. Their minds may not be at their best.” She also says it’s not a given that all businesses will want to reopen as soon as possible. Given all the uncertainties, she says, “I’m not sure I want to be at the front of the reopening. I might run to the back of the line. There are a lot of very complicated problems that need to be addressed.” 

Not the least of which is whether younger people should be allowed to come together sooner rather than later, given that their symptoms tend to be less severe. 

“Groups of kids together with healthy teachers or camp counsellors sounds safe,” says McGahan. “But are they vectors of disease for their parents and grandparents once they come home?” 

Macklem compares our current circumstances to the days after 9/11. “There was security chaos,” he recalls. “People missed flights. But airports got redesigned. Protocols were redeveloped. We figured it out.” 

What could that mean going forward? Lacetera figures the hospitals of the future will be designed to ensure that pandemic-stricken patients can be quarantined away from everyone else. The same for long-term-care homes, which have become ground zero in the fight to beat the bug. 

“We need a whole rethink of elder care,” Macklem insists. 

There are a bunch of other questions that will be answered only in the fullness of time. Will we be able, when appropriate, to work from home more? Will we have more virtual concerts, such as this past Saturday night’s One World extravaganza? Will we do less “frivolous” spending — eat out less frequently at restaurants, example? Will we take climate change more seriously, given how much clearer the skies over our major cities now are? Will we value the quality of our interactions more than ever, as many of us seem to be doing now? 

One small indication of how much things have changed — McGahan confessed her hair had been getting so long that her partner had to give her a haircut.  Macklem teased back: “If I had to cut my partner’s hair, it might not be good for our long-term relationship.” 

It’s going to be a brave new post-pandemic world of work, indeed.

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