March 2021 marks one year since the beginning of state-mandated stay-at-home orders and workplace shutdowns due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has caused the most significant disruption to workplaces in generations, and not just in terms of barking dogs, homeschooling, gate-crashers at virtual meetings, and sweat pants. The pandemic forced employers and employees to quickly pivot and change. Many of these changes will undoubtedly impact the workplace for years to come. The following is a roundup of 10 ways in which the pandemic may have a lasting influence on how we work.
1. Remote Work
The technology existed to enable remote work in many industries and jobs well before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic, however, forced many employers and employees to adapt quickly to both remote-work technologies and the cultural shift needed to embrace remote work. Employers rolled out the use of video conferencing services to facilitate communications of all types, including meetings, depositions, arbitration hearings, investigations, and social interactions. The pandemic significantly accelerated the adoption of these technologies, which likely are here to stay. Employers can expect that the worker demand for remote work flexibility will remain beyond the pandemic. Further, employers may have a higher bar to clear when declining to offer remote work to those who request it as an accommodation for a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act or state law.
Physical workspaces may change as we move beyond the COVID-19 crisis. The increase in remote work in some industries will mean employers may need less space or may use common spaces or hoteling arrangements more frequently. On the other hand, employers in some industries that had larger space and physical separations that were able to better operate in a socially distanced manner during the pandemic may prefer to maintain these spaces. For employers in retail and restaurant industries, plexiglass and other dividers provided an additional level of safety between customers and workers. These dividers may become commonplace in some settings.
3. Workplace Innovations
As with workplaces optimized for remote work, the workplaces that thrived during the pandemic more often than not adopted workplace innovations, such as paperless tools, virtual platforms, and new workflow processes. For example, employees in many industries adopted paperless technologies, such as electronic signature services, which have been available but not in consistent use. Much of the workforce has now become accustomed to these innovations. Employers that seek to revert to the way work was completed prior to the pandemic may face challenges. Likewise, employees that resist innovations may require more training.
4. Legal Proceedings
As the pandemic continued longer than expected, courts and government agencies had to adapt. Attorneys began conducting depositions virtually, with surprising ease and success. Mediations and arbitration hearings proceeded virtually, union elections proceeded by mail, and many courts opened jury trials by allowing virtual voir dire and witness testimony. Parties to litigation have learned that virtual proceedings have reduced time and expenses without negatively affecting justice and due process. We can expect the trend of virtual proceedings to continue in many aspects of employment law.
5. Caregiving and the Impact on the Workplace
Employers witnessed firsthand the significant caregiving obligations of workers, from caring for children when schools closed to caring for parents or family members with COVID-19 or underlying conditions that made them vulnerable. All of this has occurred at a time when more and more states are enacting laws to provide additional workplace flexibility for caregivers, including paid leave. At the federal level, paid leave proposals have recently garnered more widespread support from legislators of both political parties. As a result, employers can expect that employees will seek more flexibility for caregiving moving forward.
6. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Reimagined
The pandemic highlighted the reality that despite advancements in the areas of workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), there is more work to be done. Professionals working in DE&I have noted that the caregiving obligations of COVID-19 disproportionately impacted women in the workplace. Challenges related to COVID-19, including infection rates, access to testing, and access to vaccines disparately impacted individuals based on socioeconomic status. Employers may want to refine their diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives based on what they learned in 2020.
7. Disaster Planning and Readiness
Employers without a disaster preparedness plan when the pandemic began had to scramble quickly. COVID-19 has taught us that all employers, regardless of size or industry, may be well served to plan in advance for risks.
8. Dignity of Work and Everyday Heroes
The COVID-19 pandemic shone a light on the heroic efforts of many workers: grocery workers; nurses, doctors, and other healthcare workers; human resources executives navigating uncharted waters; financial institution staff helping small businesses obtain loans; and so many others. Many workers rallied to the aid of their colleagues, and individuals took great pride in the dignity of their work. Recognizing these contributions, employers had and still have the opportunity to build workplace cultures of appreciation and gratitude.
Significant crises sometimes have a dark side, and employers saw it in the increased fraud that may have occurred alongside an increase in legitimate claims for assistance during the pandemic. False unemployment claims, identity thefts to obtain benefits, and phishing scams related to COVID-19 spread through workplaces. Many employers are expected to invest in information security, data privacy, and employee information protections as a result of the lessons they learned from these attempts.
10. Social Distancing in the Business World
Will the workplace handshake survive the global pandemic? Many employees are eager to return to social aspects of working on site rather than remotely, including being physically present with coworkers, colleagues, customers, and clients. Has a cultural shift in physical interaction occurred in the workplace? It may remain socially acceptable to refrain from physical gestures, such as handshakes, in workplace settings. All the same, workers have recognized the social value of being together.
All of our workplace experiences will be defined as “before COVID-19” and “after COVID-19.” For years to come, employers will undoubtedly look back on 2020 with 20/20 vision.
Ogletree Deakins will continue to monitor and report on developments with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic and will post updates to the firm’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Center as additional information becomes available. For more information on COVID-19, please join us for our upcoming webinar, “What’s Trending in Employment Law With Rico and Rebecca,” which will take place on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, from 2:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. EST. The speakers, Rebecca Bennett and Rico Barrera will discuss the latest in COVID-19 vaccinations, travel restrictions, and immunity laws, among other topics. Register here. Important information for employers is also available via the firm’s podcast programs.