Corporate culture a thing of the past

Until the pandemic ends, that is.

In Summary
  • It’ll not be regained simply by having employees (a fraction) in the same building.
  • ‘You live where you work’ has become the new platitude in town.
Workers busy in an office.
Workers busy in an office.

In mid-March, the majority of office workers were propelled into a sudden, frenzied experiment of working from home. Five months later, the experiment shows no signs of ending anytime soon. In fact, many employers have no choice but to keep their staff at home, even as the question of productivity continues to linger in the air.

The latest to join the work from home is the media industry. Many news hours have been turned into what they now refer to as ‘home editions’. Not coincidentally, employers keep pushing back their projected office return dates; rethinking the best strategies that will keep their businesses viable throughout this pandemic. What appeared like a test run now seems to be more like the long run.

Last month, Google announced that its employees whose work does not require them to be in the office would continue to work from home through June 30, 2021. Amazon will allow its employees to continue working remotely through Jan. 8; it previously had said employees could work from home until October. Mark Zuckerberg has said he expects half of Facebook’s workforce to be remote within the decade.

In early May, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey sent an email to his staff telling them that some of them would be allowed to continue to work from home forever, even after the coronavirus pandemic's eventual end. Here in Kenya, more employers are considering extending work-from-home options for employees through the fall, the end of the year or longer as coronavirus cases continue to surge in parts of the country.

‘You live where you work’ has become the new platitude in town and with the pandemic shutting the face-to-face economy, it seems poised to enfeeble the spatial relationship between work and home. In fact, a recent survey by economists at Harvard Business School projected that when the pandemic ends, one in six workers will continue working from home or co-working at least two days a week.

One thing that remains clear is that if white-collar workers were told working from the office is forever optional, some will take their city jobs out of the cities.

Another survey conducted by IBM found that 54 per cent of employees would prefer to primarily work remotely full time. In an article in the World Economic Forum, Ravin Jesuthasan says that few organisations will be able to fulfil their workforce’s demands for certainty and stability. What they can and should promise, though, is clarity and continued relevance in a changing world.

One thing that remains clear is that if white-collar workers were told working from the office is forever optional, some will take their city jobs out of the cities. The coronavirus is slowly killing the corporate culture. Working from home is no longer a problem for many. In fact, the eight hours working can now be covered between 6am and 10pm as opposed to the usual 8am to 5pm. And the workforce has well adjusted to this.

The question now confronting most employers is not when their employees will get back to the office but whether they should actually do so at all. Though, when offices do return, they may limit themselves, because of state orders or their own concerns about preventing employees from getting sick, to a reduced occupancy, of say 40 per cent.

The corporate culture that so many employers value is based on a level of interaction that will not be regained simply by employees being in the same building—a fraction of the workforce for that matter. Until the pandemic ends, corporate culture is a thing of the past.

While many people in various industries (say manufacturing, retail, transportation, health care, and more) cannot practically work from home, the pandemic has shown just how many companies can operate adequately, even successfully, without actually having all the employees in the same office.

Therefore, those running organisations whose employees are more or less getting their work done at home, here is the time to listen to that small voice in your head, if you understand what I'm talking about. Thinking of returning to the office now is an insane thought.

Certainly, office planners are envisioning a new workplace; of rigorous cleaning protocols, new cubicle designs, touchless elevators, closure of common spaces, ventilation system upgrades to ensure fresh air, and schedule shifting.

One thing that remains indisputable is that we can’t just go back to life before the pandemic. What we must do now is to get through this pandemic, and adapt. Meanwhile, it’s time for technology to prevail and help the workforce. Maybe, it is time to embrace the change and possibly, it will be for the better. Who knows.

Communications Specialist. Twitter: @prof_emsi