You’re Not Going Back to Normal Office Life for a Long, Long Time

Many experts want the WFH workforce to stay put until a vaccine is approved. If you do head back, expect indoor masks, staggered schedules, small meetings, and the death of open-office plans.
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Illustration by Hunter French

Last Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg announced that he had decided to slow down plans to move Facebook employees back into their offices. In a statement, the CEO said that employees with the ability to work from home would continue to do so at least through May. Whenever the company does open back up, Facebook employees who still don’t feel comfortable re-entering the offices would be allowed to continue to work from home through the summer, and maybe beyond that.


“Most Facebook employees are fortunate to be able to work productively from home, so we feel a responsibility to allow people who don't have this flexibility to access shared public resources first,” Zuckerberg wrote. “I hope this helps contain the spread of COVID-19 so we can keep our communities safe and get back up and running again soon.”

Zuckerberg’s note could be seen as responsible and benevolent. But it also left the impression that the company could return to something resembling normalcy within a matter of months. The optimistic suggestion might appeal to those having cabin fever-ish dreams that they will soon be back in their old offices, surrounded on all sides by people they nominally enjoy. But it stands in stark contrast to the opinions of health experts and economists—many of whom say that much of the country’s work-from-home workforce can expect to continue to do so for some time. If and when the WFH-ers do head back in, the office life they once knew will likely be gone, replaced by largely empty floors, with few if any meetings and elevator rides, and everyone in masks.

If and when the WFH-ers do head back in, the office life they once knew will likely be gone, replaced by largely empty floors, with few if any meetings and elevator rides, and everyone in masks.

Right now, the biggest question facing the U.S. economy is when workers will be able to get back to work. For those who can't perform their job duties from their living rooms, returning to the workplace as soon as possible is critical, not just for their families but to their businesses and the broader economy. The situation is quite different for the millions of Americans currently working from home. For them, returning to the office is not of critical importance. Mostly, it would just be nice.


“We don’t need a telecommuter to go into her office,” said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “If she goes into her office and gets sick, not only is it a problem for her. It’s a problem for the health system.” If all telecommuters suddenly went back to the office, it would also greatly increase the possibility of future outbreaks. One recent University of Chicago study found that 37 percent of U.S. jobs can “plausibly be performed entirely at home”—a number that jumps to near 50 percent in metropolitan areas like San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

As a result, many plans to invigorate the economy have assumed WFH-ers will stay put for a long time. Despite repeated aggressive calls to reopen the economy as soon as possible, President Donald Trump’s own guidelines to do so asks employers to continue to “ENCOURAGE TELEWORK, whenever possible and feasible with business operations,” until the final phase of the re-opening, by which time vulnerable populations can also go outside and people can visit senior centers. The liberal Center for American Progress’ plan said employers “must continue to allow telework to the extent possible” until “herd immunity has been achieved through mass vaccination,” which could take anywhere from 12 months to two years. The right-leaning American Enterprise Institute agrees, saying people should continue to work from home “where convenient” until the FDA has approved a vaccine or “there are other therapeutic options that can be used for preventive or treatment indications.”


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On Thursday, the same day Zuckerberg made his announcement, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told businesses that they would need to adapt to a “new normal” even when the economy opens back up. “Reimagine your workplace,” Cuomo said. “How many people can continue to work from home and the business still works?” Versions of the question are being asked by economists around the country. “This is a tricky problem that businesses probably haven't thought about much,” said Jonathan Dingel, an economics professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. To minimize the risk of an outbreak at the office, employers will need to figure out the absolute smallest number of people they need to come into the office in order for the business to function properly, Dingel said. And that group will rarely include anyone who can work from home.

“If someone is able to work from home, obviously they probably aren't quite as productive as they would be in the office,” Dingel said. “But if they're able to do a reasonably good job while working from home, then the benefit of bringing them back to the office is not as high as the benefit of letting someone [come back to] perform a task that's impossible to perform if they're not on site.”


“Reimagine your workplace,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said. “How many people can continue to work from home and the business still works?”

Consider the way the NBA is trying to navigate a return to play. In order to reduce the likelihood that someone will contract coronavirus, which would threaten to shut down the league once more, the NBA reportedly plans to disallow fans and create a skeletal crew to surround the competing teams should it return. A similar scenario will likely play out at offices all around the country: The most essential employees head to the office, and the WFH-ers hang back in order to decrease the odds anyone gets sick. In his note, Zuckerberg implied his office was working through that calculation, noting that a “small percent of our critical employees who can't work remotely” might be able to return earlier than June, “but overall, we don't expect to have everyone back in our offices for some time.”

Even in the best of circumstances, the situation will likely cause a schism at certain workplaces. Jobs that can be performed at home already tend to earn higher wages, according to Dingel, who has studied the issue. Now, they will also provide protection while other workers risk their health to commute to their jobs.

One enormous question mark is how widely available testing and contact tracing will become, and whether surviving the virus confers immunity—something scientists still don’t know with any certainty. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said earlier this month that trustworthy immunity tests would expedite a return to work for his company. Many Wall Street firms would reportedly need “ubiquitous testing” before their employees returned to work. Until there is more data broadly available about COVID-19 transmission, “It's going to be pretty darn difficult to really make any concrete plans,” said Michael Mina, an epidemiologist and immunologist at Harvard.


“The open office plans that have people sitting shoulder to shoulder shouldn't be operating at full capacity anytime soon."

Nevertheless, experts expected some employers would gradually try and bring WFH-ers back into the office before it is medically advisable. Trump’s own reopening plan only suggests guidelines for businesses, and Cuomo has similarly said the decision-making process will not fall on government alone. “It's government deciding with private businesses,” Cuomo said last week. Inevitably, some companies will reopen in ways that make nonessential employees feel pressured to return too early to spaces that are crowded and unsanitary.

But in order to minimize risk and assuage employee fears, responsible employers will need to fundamentally restructure their offices to adapt to new social-distancing and hygiene guidelines, which could remain in place until a vaccine has been approved, experts said.

“It's got to appear safe to people,” said Peter Cappelli, a professor of management and director of The Wharton School’s Center of Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania. "We'll probably have to do a lot of social distancing at work for a long time.”

The new order will make familiar spaces look foreign and minimize what was once one of the major benefits to office life: face-to-face interaction. The open office plans that allowed employers to squeeze workers together will likely become a thing of the past, at least temporarily. “You can't have that in the new era,” said Zeke Emanuel, the vice provost for global initiatives and director of the Healthcare Transformation Institute at the University of Pennsylvania and lead writer of the Center for American Progress’ coronavirus report. “The open office plans that have people sitting shoulder to shoulder shouldn't be operating at full capacity anytime soon,” agreed Dingel.


“In particular, elevators are a great way to spread a lot of virus around.”

Crowded meetings in conference rooms also won’t be possible. Emanuel said his conference room that normally fits approximately 25 people could hold maybe six or seven well-spaced people, but even then, there’s still a risk. Others said even that seemed too optimistic. While some workers might enjoy the extra arm room, the amount of space needed would also likely require employers to stagger schedules to avoid overflow. “You’ll have to limit the number of people who can come in,” said Emanuel. He suggested employers might do things like have people with even birthdays come in one day, and people with odd days come in another, then shake it up according to people’s social security numbers. “So you’re not seeing only the same seven people in your office,” Emanuel explained.

Regardless of who is selected to be around you, you’ll all be wearing masks while at your desks. “We're not getting rid of the masks. We need to have them,” said Emanuel. “People will probably be wearing masks for a while, at the very least when they first start to go back,” agreed Mina, the epidemiologist. At best, hand sanitizer will be everywhere; kitchens traffic will be minimal; deep cleans will occur often; and temperature checks could become normalized.


Bringing WFH-ers back will be exponentially trickier for those companies who have rented space in high-rises with elevators in cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. “Those might be the last places that people return to work,” said Mina. “In particular, elevators are a great way to spread a lot of virus around.” “I’d rather go to a concert,” said Gordon. Emanuel agreed crowded elevators “can’t happen. We’re not going to be able to do that.” Instead, Emanuel said, office buildings will need to allow a maximum of 2-3 people at a time, and each person will need to wear a mask and gloves.

Bringing WFH-ers back will be exponentially trickier for those companies who have rented space in high-rises with elevators in cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago.

“These are the kind of things we're going to have to begin putting in place,” said Emanuel. “Is it going to prevent every outbreak? No, but that's why we have to have testing and contact tracing. So that if an outbreak happens, we can do our best to limit it to a very small number of people.”

Jonathan Segal, an employment attorney at the law firm Duane Morris who specializes in human resources and company legal risk, said instituting social-distancing measures would be the easy part. The difficulties will stem from enforcement. “What do you do when someone is not engaging in social distancing? It seems to me that what’s acceptable conduct needs to be redefined,” said Segal, who personally believes not following the new rules "should be a disqualifier from their working."

Inevitably, some employers will fall short. But the incentives to prevent an outbreak are already clear: When a Smithfield pork processing facility in South Dakota failed to control a COVID-19 outbreak, it led to hundreds of employees getting sick and the plant closing down, which hurt both the company’s reputation and its bottom line. Among employers who compete for top talent, not adhering to COVID-19 guidelines at the office could come with additional risks. Segal, the employment attorney, said top talent could flee for a competitor, and anxious employees could prove less productive.

And even if an employer does everything right, a COVID-19 outbreak at the office will remain a distinct possibility. Considering what it will take to get everyone back to the offices—what with the masks, the empty offices, the staggering, the uncertainty, and the overarching anxiety—perhaps the question isn’t when the WFH-ers will return to work again, but when they’ll head back home.

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