The Potential Effects of COVID-19 on the Workplace

We’d like to preface this opinion piece by extending our best wishes to all of you and your families, hoping you remain safe and in continued (or improving) health.  These are unprecedented times we are living in and they have not been easy for anyone.  We are especially grateful to our healthcare professionals, first responders, elected officials, and countless other volunteers who are helping in so many ways during this fight. 

With a steady stream of daily news centered on the growing toll of COVID-19 as well as the instability it has created in financial markets, we hope to strike a balance by expressing optimism things will soon turn a corner.  Thinking ahead, we have frequently been asked in recent weeks for our thoughts on what  the long-term effects of this experience will be on the workplace post-crisis?  Will it result in meaningful long-term changes in work structures or will there be a gradual reversion to the norm as things improve?  Having polled many for their views in recent days, there is no clear-cut answer however we offer some our observations and views here as food for thought.

Employees weighing work/life balance more than ever before
A key overarching theme of this event is that it has served as a mental reset for re-examining one’s life priorities. Having been able to work from home, shave hours off daily commute times, and spend more time with family (some would argue too much time), it seems likely that workers regardless of industry will reconsider their desire to continue in a role that requires lengthy commutes on a long-term basis.  With many individuals stating that they have experienced an increased level of productivity as a result of removing their commute, it seems likely that job candidates will increasingly target roles or companies that offer remote work arrangements on a more frequent basis.  If one can be more productive working remotely while obtaining a better work/life balance as a result, it’s a win-win.  Because of that, this change feels highly probable.

A heightened sense of environmental responsibility
If there is a silver lining of the COVID-19 experience, one that has frequently been mentioned by both employees and companies has been rediscovering a connection to nature.  Needing an outlet and form of exercise during quarantine has led many to take daily walks, runs, bike rides, and other outdoor activities they haven’t had time for in the past.  Some would argue that this has also led to greater mental health in addition to creating a heightened sense of environmental stewardship.  With that in mind, a likely outcome will be a growing segment of the workforce that feels a duty in taking a more active role in reducing their environmental footprint whether working remotely, relocating closer to a metropolitan area, or taking other measures to preserve the environment.

Potential changes in workplace operating structures
We anticipate several changes taking place in workplace operating structures as a result of this experience.  Most companies have reported that remote work structures and video calls have worked surprisingly well.  Having been forced to adopt a real-time implementation of the virtual workplace is particularly noteworthy given the scale of the event and the fact that many companies have traditionally held only limited, periodic tests of such a structure for business continuity purposes.  The virtual workplace has offered some benefits and challenges which will require further exploration in the months ahead. On the plus side, there has been a deeper level of “humanization” within the work environment, with employees reporting that they are getting to know colleagues on a more personal basis with everyone experiencing similar circumstances and shared challenges. Many respondents also indicated that information flow across the organization has been happening with increased efficiency which was an unforeseen benefit. As far as potential challenges, there has been a loss of corporate culture to some degree. It is difficult to replicate the collegial nature of working alongside teammates and getting ingrained in an organization’s culture while working virtually.  Another related challenge has been how to hire and onboard new employees virtually in lieu of in-person/on-site meetings.

Measuring the productivity of remote work arrangements
One of the more hotly-debated topics of late has been whether there is a loss of productivity resulting from employees working remotely.  We asked employers and employees alike to weigh in on this topic, with the majority of respondents (as noted above) citing they felt there was increased productivity without the time burn/stress of a commute and a clearer ability to focus on deliverables without the common distractions that happen within the workplace.  At the same time, there are others who don’t have the necessary remote office equipment or space.  Some have also cited distractions at home, whether family or personal matters.  In an effort to make sure that all employees are able to adequately fulfill the needs of their role, companies will likely need to determine other metrics for assessing employees’ remote work performance besides gauging their use of a VPN connection.  Examples would be regular project status check-ins, work volume assessments, or other ways to measure one’s relative contribution.

Employers requesting that employees have suitable work-from-home spaces
Few of us could ever have anticipated a situation where a work-from-home situation would entail one’s entire family or group of roommates being housebound for an extended period and competing for quiet workspaces.  For some people, it has clearly worked better than others and we anticipate that employers will request that greater consideration be given by employees to ensuring that they have an operable and suitable remote workspace available to them in the event of a future crisis.

New travel/illness guidelines
Among the highest priorities for companies as conditions improve will be tightening up policies around work travel and employee illness within the workplace.  On the travel side, new policies are likely to be developed which prioritize the need for global travel based on the risk profile of the region and the need for such travel as dictated by client size, importance, or other metrics. As far as preventing illness within the workplace, firms are almost certain to take a stricter approach regarding employees coming into the office when feeling ill.  The days of individuals feeling guilty about being out of the office due to illness and its potential negative perceptions seem numbered in our view. It is also probable that companies will increase their promotion of regular handwashing and other precautionary practices to mitigate the potential spread of illnesses.

Re-evaluate the need for attendance at industry conferences and events
Closely aligned with the topics of work travel and workplace illness, industry conferences will come under the microscope in the post-COVID-19 environment.  Firms will likely re-evaluate the need for their employees to attend such events, assessing the importance of such events based on their cost/benefit relationship to the company.

Clients requiring greater clarity around succession planning
One of the key learnings from COVID-19 is that it has reinforced the concept that diseases don’t always choose certain populations and can be indiscriminate in how they spread.  This virus has impacted people from all walks of life which has been especially concerning.  Because of that, we feel it is likely that clients, prospects, and shareholders will require more transparency around a company’s succession plan.  This will necessitate firms having a clearly-articulated written succession plan in place for their leadership team which includes specifics around the chain of command in the event of a crisis.  Additionally, companies will need to re-explore their key man risk arrangements to understand what potential client impacts exist in the event of a change as well as related considerations such as having adequate keyman insurance policies in place for those individuals.

Greater connection between employers and local community assistance organizations
Perhaps the most impressive development to occur in recent weeks has been the truly amazing response from companies across the asset management industry and other industries offering financial assistance to their local community-based support organizations.  This commitment has in many ways either strengthened existing connections between the company and those organizations or formed new relationships which will hopefully foster long-lasting partnerships in the years ahead.  While it should by no means ever be the intent behind such actions, clients and prospects also see great value and goodwill in companies being strong contributors and advocates within their local communities.

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