Your LinkedIn feed is probably full of articles with catchy headlines like, “One virus, many new questions,” “Coronavirus: Fujitsu announces permanent work from home plan,” and “Step into the office of the future…” If you’re anything like me, your workspace is probably full of things like silly putty, granola bars, a cup-from-your-favorite-bar-turned-water-cup, and a sweatshirt where the blazer hung three months ago when you began occupying this space instead of the corner office or the cubicle.
The disconnect between these two settings is stark. On the one hand, we are seeing that we live in a world eager (to put it mildly) to initiate change and move toward working from home on a permanent basis. On the other hand, we are experiencing the very real situation of not knowing whether this is something we want permanently, the reality of watching as “life as we know it” becomes “life as we knew it.”
We feel disconnected from colleagues, from friends, from the coffeemaker we love on the third floor, and from the Employee of the Month parking spot that was supposed to be ours for the whole month of March. We feel a little adrift without the friendly whiteboard messages and the watercooler discussions and the candy bowl atop the office favorite’s desk.
Or maybe we feel free of distractions from colleagues and friends, relieved to drink coffee made at home, and excited to be saving on gas. Maybe we feel grounded in a routine that is wholly our own and we like eating lunch with our significant other every single day and the candy bowl on the kitchen counter always has what we want.
For most of us, I think the reality is a little bit of both. We miss the watercooler chats at a time when it seems so much is changing, but we’re glad not to be debating mask policies with that one colleague we can’t stand. We miss colleagues popping in and saying, “do you have a minute?” but we’re also thinking that maybe we don’t have a minute and we like deciding when and how and at what distance we’re seeing those colleagues.
People have said repeatedly that the world will be united by 2020, and perhaps it will, in the end. For now, it feels like maybe the world is being torn apart by 2020. The question is, though, will the office be torn apart by 2020?
What is clear is that we aren’t going to go back to the place we left. If nothing else, a whole season has passed since we were last at our desks wishing we were at home. People have quit and been promoted and moved away. Offices have been closed and opened and repaired. Things will change.
But the office has left the building. We are finding ways to connect with our colleagues via Zoom and TeamSpace and Skype. We are finding walking trails and picnic tables and sunny days to accompany the conversations once held in a boardroom. While we have stopped asking the question, “Couldn’t this be covered in an e-mail?” we have found that a lot of things simply can’t be covered in an e-mail.
In many ways, this season of change has led employees to feel less engaged with their office environment, sure. But has it led employees to feel less engaged with their office? It seems that remote working places employees in the driver’s seat, deciding when and how they will engage with their work environment. For some, employee engagement has been reduced to Zoom happy hours and a weekly conference call. For others, employee engagement has grown to mean a genuine passion and enjoyment in the work the employee does. Or maybe, employee engagement means the realization that conversation with employers can start with employees.
It is inevitable that some companies will not choose to return to a physical office space or will choose to return only in part. As much as some of us might hate to see it, it is likely that remote work will become part of our “new normal.” The good news, though, is that this particular facet of life-after-Coronavirus is in our hands. As we have seen since March, the experience of a remote employee is largely in their hands, as is the engagement of that employee.
Each employee will have to find the meaningful ways in which he or she can engage with their employer and with their office once more. Though not in a physical space, this type of engagement can be achieved with the skills described in my upcoming book, “Own It. Love It. Make It Work .”
Life after Coronavirus will look different. Remote working and remote workspaces will outlast the pandemic. But the fact is, we were already moving in this direction. We’ve arrived. It is up to us, the employers and the employees, to decide what we do now that we have reached our destination.
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Carson serves as a consultant to executives at Fortune 500 companies. The author of Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style, and the upcoming Own It. Love It. Make It Work: How To Make Any Job Your Dream Job, her views have been included in Bloomberg Businessweek, Fast Company, Forbes, Harvard Business Review blog, and The New York Times.