Unprecedented. The word has taken on the quality of ubiquity in the COVID-19 era. It signals in part that some things are changing everything — the Internet that allows work to be virtual and done anywhere; a suite of permanent coronavirus precautions that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago; and the prospect of what Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer calls the “Greater Depression” because of its anticipated depth, breadth and length. Against all that, you just want to go back to work at the office. You miss seeing your colleagues and the chance conversations that help solve problems, and even the goodies left in the breakroom. After eight weeks of being “safe at home,” getting back to the workplace sounds good — but don’t bet on it.
1. Re-Entry and Daily Dynamic Likely to Be Unrecognizable. On your return to the office, expect an experience not unlike that of going to the airport — including temperature checks, health questions, and masks and gloves required prior to entering the building. As for bringing or sneaking a breakroom snack, not likely. Sterile environments are vital to keeping the coronavirus at bay, which leaves no room for fresh-baked treats or the bounty of freshly picked zucchini.
2. Your Cubicle. Our Conference Room. Where Did They Go? Social distancing will follow us back to work, indefinitely. Your space may get bigger as facilities staff reconfigure space to conform with the 6-foot separation requirements. Coupled with limits on group size, that is likely to grow cubicle row into what were once conference rooms. And in a bureaucratic environment, a measuring tape won’t have the final say on where the new lines are drawn. The size of workspaces is often codified by job function in administrative rules or collective bargaining agreements. The urgency of coronavirus compliance will go up against legacy rules in this area and others as agency buildings are opened up again in a case of irresistible force versus immovable object.
3. Beyond the Point of No Return. Social distancing is bound to spread employees across more square footage than agencies have to reconfigure to handle everybody at work. What’s more, as governments confront the need for budget cuts in the tens and hundreds of millions, the public-sector layoffs announced to date are likely to rise exponentially as the tax base shrinks. One contingency is to leave pandemic-evacuated employees where they are — working at home, assuming they are still on the payroll.
4. The Grey Beard Dilemma. The Centers for Disease Control and other public health officials have cautioned since the beginning of the crisis that “Older adults and people who have severe underlying medical conditions like heart or lung disease or diabetes seem to be at higher risk for developing more serious complications from COVID-19 illness.” That may provide some employees an excuse to leave public service early — or be the catalyst for difficult conversations with their managers about a mutually agreeable plan of when and how to transition. A recent Gartner survey indicates that 75 percent of CFOs plan that some workers will work from home permanently.
5. Surveillance. State and local governments are among those entities seeking indemnification from legal liability for employees and visitors getting sick from the coronavirus at work. Part of building a safe workplace (and a legal defense) is the use of new COVID-19 screening tools. A number of companies are already rolling out new digital tools designed to identify possible COVID-19 cases at the point of entry for workplaces.
Much of this is not pretty. But it is workable. And public service has always come at a cost. This is our generation’s burden to bear.