As the Industry Adapts to Working Remotely, Experts Say Home Could Become the New Workplace

By Drew Vass

Look around you. If you’re one of the individuals who’s been displaced from an office environment by social distancing and COVID-19, go ahead and get comfortable. Experts say you might be looking at your new, permanent workplace.

While manufacturing and warehousing environments will never escape the need for physical presence, when it comes to office and administrative functions, “I think that organizations are learning that they can function without everyone being in one physical space,” says Amy Cooper Hakim, Ph.D., an industrial, organizational psychology practitioner and workplace expert. That’s not to say that working from home and communicating via video conferencing technologies is the preferred means for doing business, as, “The best way to communicate is in person—100 percent,” Hakim says. But as companies discover the fringe benefits and learn to trust employees to remain productive while working from home, the practice is expected to become a norm, she and other experts predict. “I think we’re going to see a lot of creativity, as people realize that it can work,” she says. As virtual events and gatherings become more familiar, “It’s a true shift and I don’t think that things will go back to the way they were,” Hakim says.

Including Doors and Windows

While you might be tempted to think “not us,” indications suggest that some companies will find themselves under pressure to compete with the rest of the industry by offering more options for working from home. And those pressures may already be afoot. For example, when asked by [DWM] what they expect to become permanent after COVID-19, working from home was by far door and window companies’ top answer. That could be due to how quickly the industry has adjusted.

“All the education and communication that is available right at your desk now is amazing,” says April Lucas, director of marketing for Sierra Pacific Windows. “I feel us getting smarter and nimbler in this industry. A lot of positives are here to stay and they start with the accelerated adoption of technologies for connecting that the pandemic brought forward.” As a result, “There is a lot to be excited about for the future of the door and window industry,” she adds.

To date, some companies have told [DWM] that they’re unable to be as productive, or nimble at communicating while working remotely, but those issues tend to be subjective, Hakim says—especially among people hailing from work environments in which they normally sit next to one another and are free to interact instantly. Alternatively, while using video conferencing technologies, “If there are any connectivity glitches, or someone fidgets, or takes a deep breath and isn’t muted—those can be very distracting,” to some individuals, she says. “It’s just about learning the ropes and what the technology is and how it can help … But truly, if you are able to effectively manage those technologies they can be just as productive.”

Late to the Game

If independent studies are any indication, the industry’s migration to remote technologies could be overdue to begin with—especially when compared to other fields. For instance, a Global Work-from-Home Experience Survey conducted by Global Workplace Analytics and Dr. Anita Kamouri, co-founder of lometrics, indicates that 56% of the U.S. workforce holds positions that can be done from home, though only 3.6% did so ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic. In other words, even as the door and window industries groaned over a lack of available talent, separate studies showed that before the crisis 80% of U.S. employees wanted to work from home—if only on a part-time basis. The biggest culprit holding them back could have been trust, says a report by Global Workplace Analytics, as “managers simply don’t trust their people to work untethered,” the report suggests. But there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s changing. For instance, “Now that it’s fully proven and stress tested, working from home will become a standard component of our employment and cooperation model,” says Joe Peilert, CEO of Veka North America.

Back at the Office

When it comes to areas of the industry for which working from home isn’t an option, it probably isn’t surprising to hear that door and window companies say measures like no handshakes, increased handwashing and disinfecting stations all are expected to become permanent—even after COVID-19 has released its grip on society. But you might be surprised to hear that some companies have no plans for going back to open-door policies, as they come to realize that there are safety and security issues.

“We will probably continue to limit access to our plant by non-employees,” says Mark Thorne-Thomsen, president of Metal-Craft Doors. “Access to our manufacturing line, office areas and showroom was too open previous to COVID-19,” he adds. Currently his company isn’t allowing anyone but employees into the building during production hours, he says, as, “Customers are allowed into the showroom after production hours only, if they are wearing a mask,” he says. “After COVID-19, we will continue to lock certain doors to our plant and better monitor the people coming and going.”

For those doors that do stay open, some companies say they plan to continue offering face masks to both employees and visitors long after the pandemic is over, as well as may continue to perform measures like testing employees’ temperatures. At the same time, experts suggest that we might see a glut of new technologies implemented in workplaces designed to perform those and other measures automatically. For instance, there could be new sensors installed that not only monitor body temperature, but other aspects of health and wellbeing. In other words, while in the past, employees might have flinched at a co-worker’s sneeze, going forward, “Infection control is a new priority,” because, “Employees will not return to an office that doesn’t feel safe,” says Jim Keane, president and CEO of Steelcase. After COVID-19, work environments “need to be based on the ability to adapt easily to possible economic, climate and health disruptions,” a white paper produced by Keane’s company suggests. As a result, “The reinvented office must be designed with an even deeper commitment to the wellbeing of people, recognizing that their physical, cognitive and emotional states are inherently linked to their safety,” the paper says. According to research conducted by the company, businesses are expected to develop future response teams for pandemics and other disasters. These cross-functional teams will be led by managers who deploy employee protocols and communicate requirements for sanitization and disinfection, as well as additional personal protective equipment (PPE) the moment a pandemic is even suspected.

“The office must immediately be made safe, but also more resilient and more adaptive to the changes we can only imagine, as competition intensifies in a post-COVID world,” Keane says.

And according to Laura Bonk, an environmental advisor and safety instructor, those changes shouldn’t be voluntary. According to the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970, 29 USC 654(a)(1), Bonk reminds us that employers are required to furnish to every worker a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards, “that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

Generational Gaps

As companies adapt to the post-COVID-19-world we all currently long for, not every generation of worker views the necessity for pandemic-proofing the workplace in the same way.

“Everyone will return to a workplace changed in some way, though expectations will be different from person to person, and could create new tensions across generations at work,” Keane says. The same is true for the use of technologies, Hakim explains. When it comes to how comfortable and productive some employees feel when utilizing video conferencing, for instance, “It’s largely generational,” she says. But just as people have given up their landlines at home, employees may turn less to phone extensions going forward, when looking to communicate.

For larger companies, there are also other benefits at stake that could cause them to push employees toward adoption. For instance, “There is no easier, quicker, and cheaper way to reduce your carbon footprint than by reducing commuter travel,” says Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics.

And in time those methods will feel more natural for everyone, Hakim suggests.

Drew Vass is the editor of [DWM] magazine.

To view the laid-in version of this article in our digital edition, CLICK HERE.

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