Employee Engagement

A midterm outlook on the future of the workplace

By Paul Falcone

Jun. 19, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is the first of its kind for virtually everyone living on this planet.  We’ve survived SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in 2012, Ebola around 2014, and even AIDS. 

We’re still here, and yet this feels different.  As of this writing, we still don’t know what we don’t know about this virus’s trajectory, its reinfection rate, or the longer-term ramifications to the health of those infected. 

It’s difficult to speculate how and in what ways this health crisis will affect the workplace globally, but in the nearer term, it’s reasonable to predict certain outcomes with a fairly high degree of certainty. The phases of COVID-19 will likely follow a pattern of illness, mitigation, and control (where we are now), economic impact in terms of stock markets and unemployment, and anticipated litigation, especially in the areas of employment, wage and hour, and disability discrimination. Finally, a “new normal” of sorts will establish itself, but things many never be quite the same.  We’ve lost a certain innocence about many of the things we take for granted. 

For example, there will certainly be a gradual, staged reintegration of workers back into the workplace. Some nations, states and companies may lurch right back in, while others will be more cautious, prudent, and mindful about the upcoming reintegration. What’s for sure, though, is that we’ll gradually move back into a fully operational and integrated workplace.

Working remotely

Two changes, however, are likely: a smaller workforce at each company and a remote approach to working. To that latter point, Gen Z’s desire for more flexibility and greater work-life balance may dovetail nicely into this paradigm of remote telework. Technology creates new opportunities for face-to-face, real-time meetings, even if they aren’t in person. Likewise, a smaller, leaner workforce will likely be the new norm as organizations pare down corporate infrastructure and spans of control and retain only the strongest performers.  

A practical impact of more remote work from smaller teams, however, may be the threat to managers’ exemption status. For example, in California, “concurrent duties” are permissible during emergencies. An exempt employee may perform both exempt and nonexempt duties, all the time qualifying as exempt.

However, outside of an emergency, exempt managers must spend 50 percent or more of their time engaging in “exempt” level duties, meaning responsibilities with a high degree of independent judgment, discretion, and decision-making. If remote managers in smaller organizations start doing more of the work their subordinates have typically done, their exemption status could be threatened.  And if your managers’ exempt classification is in jeopardy, class action wage and hour lawsuits may result. 

HR steps up

How can HR leaders step up? By predicting the natural reintegration curve that’s coming our way. Some workers may truly suffer from anxiety and depression as they return to work. Expect new medical diagnoses of “adjustment disorder with anxiety” and PTSD—pre-traumatic stress disorder—as workers experience a new paranoia about coming to work, their surroundings, and everything they touch and come into contact with.

Think about it: simply using public transportation to get to work may cause some to seek medical treatment for an invisible enemy that surrounds them. Employees may ask about “proximity alarms” and warning devises that trigger when coming within six feet of coworkers and customers. Partitions and barriers like the plexiglass windows seen at the grocery store may be at the top of certain employees’ wish lists, as may be requests for staggering arrival times to avoid overcrowding.  

Likewise, as an employer, you may want to implement new rules on PPE (personal protective equipment), hand-washing and other sanitation standards.  You may likewise look to introduce attestation language to your electronic timekeeping system when nonexempt workers clock out at the end of the day verifying that they have no COVID-19 symptoms.

Challenges ahead

Whatever this looks like in your particular organization, rest assured that change is coming in the form of predictable and unforeseeable challenges.  

Be the wisdom. Lead and welcome the change. When in doubt, err on the side of compassion and leave judgment behind when supporting your workers through this.

There will likely be no greater opportunity for you to exercise selfless leadership than you’re getting right now at this very moment in your career. We’re at a point of pure creation, with few policies, precedents, or practices to fall back on or guide us.  See this as an opportunity to excel, shine, and lead.

Teach what you choose to learn. Help your team members and employees know that you’re there for them and you’ve got their backs, no matter what challenges come your way next. This crisis is the making of inspirational leadership that will define you for the rest of your career.

Now, more than ever, you have an opportunity to demonstrate role model leadership and touch and inspire those around you. Never let a crisis go to waste. 

Paul Falcone is the chief human resources officer for the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills, California, and the author of "96 Great interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire," "101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees," "75 Ways for Managers to Hire, Develop," and "Keep Great Employees."

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