If this continues, it could result in a permanent change in the employee-employer relationship. Employees could become increasingly mercenary, no longer swayed by the strong social bonds and physical-world perks of the office of the past.
For their part, employers could increasingly view their staffs as little more than interchangeable work units. As a manager, no matter how objective I think I may be, I would probably find it easier to fire an employee with whom I had little personal connection. That difficult conversation would be reduced to a few minutes on a screen, with no chance of running into the person later in the coffee room.
All of this may sound dismal, but this change in employee psychology and loyalty may come with an unexpected liberation, encouraging workers to look beyond the workplace to build friendships and identity.
In our previous office lives, some of us had access to free food, coffee rooms or other on-site perks. We might have enjoyed them, but they also helped keep us in the office for long hours. Likewise, the presence of co-workers and bosses made us more compliant, less likely to take a proper lunch hour or make the effort to attend a child’s school event.
With our offices gone, our days have now opened up. Why not make that doctor’s appointment for 4 p.m.? Why not pick the kids up at day care rather than find a babysitter? Why not try something entirely new, like going for a walk in the middle of the day, or participating in social activism or a protest during typical work hours, as millions of Americans have done this summer? I know I split my day differently now, sometimes having lunch with my husband and kids at noon, or starting work much earlier or later depending on what I need to get done that day.
In spite of early optimism, what’s great for some employees may not be so great for a company’s bottom line, which is why I’m sure many employers will ultimately adopt a hybrid approach, requiring employees to spend some days each week in the office. But for those who choose to keep employees at home permanently, there are opportunities to treat them as more than just paychecks.
Companies could focus on employee well-being from afar, offering perks that would help workers thrive at home. Do those in hot climates have access to air-conditioning? Does everyone have the equipment they need? How can companies support an employee’s mental health now that most interactions are mediated through a screen? Would some employees prefer co-working hubs — a lighter version of the traditional office? And perhaps companies will finally consider, do parents have adequate child care?