How Will Your Office Be Different in 2021 and Beyond?

There has been much talk about how the pandemic may have permanently altered our society. I have been hoping this is not true, as most of the pandemic’s changes have not been pleasant for me. However, there may be some bright spots regarding how the COVID-19 scourge has changed the workplace for good.

A recent article in The Washington Post by Jena McGregor pondered some ways we might find offices permanently changed.

The first possible change McGregor notes would not bode well for those of us living in cities such as New York; Boston; San Francisco; and Washington D.C., where the cost of living, and salaries, tend to be higher. McGregor writes that as recruiting and remote work go national, so will salaries. Should I panic? Does that mean my New York salary will start to resemble the salary I would earn living in the rural South or Midwest? And yet I will still have the same high cost of living. That would be bad! Even for those who do move to a less expensive area, the thought of taking a pay cut probably would be unwelcome.

The article points out there could be negative fallout for doing this, with Josh Bersin offering McGregor this insight: “If you have an engineer making $150,000 in San Francisco pick up and move to Montana, and now you’re going to pay him $120,000, what is that guy going to do? Look for another job.”

As if video-enabled conference calls weren’t bad enough—having to worry about how you look for an hour or more while working from home in “leisurewear”—McGregor reports that “smarter” video chat with artificial intelligence could emerge. “Zoom Video Communications, for instance, announced a ‘smart gallery’ feature it plans to roll out in June 2021 that will use cameras to make multiple people in the same on-site conference room appear as separate, equal-sized windows on their live-stream video. Those working from home will see the individual faces of each colleague rather than just a view of the whole conference room, an effort to visually shrink the differences between remote and in-person workers,” she writes.

I don’t find this possibility pleasing. It might be more of a boon to productivity to allow employees to listen with audio only. That way, for the many parts of the meeting that don’t concern them, they can continue doing their work. I now work, even with the camera trained on me, during parts of meetings I am not participating in, but I know not everyone would feel comfortable doing so.

And maybe I won’t feel comfortable working with the camera on me much longer either! It looks like Cisco Systems is launching “gesture recognition.” I think that means that, instead of just being plopped in front of my computer, I will be expected to show through my hand gestures that I am fully engaged. McGregor describes the technology as “using artificial intelligence to recognize specific movements—clapping, raised hands, a thumbs up, or thumbs down. For large virtual meetings with hundreds of attendees, it could help gauge reactions to an idea without requiring attendees to answer a survey or click an on-screen emoji.

At this point, the technology won’t be zeroing in on facial expressions such as frowns and eye rolls—a huge relief if you’ve been in some of the meetings I’ve been in!

Instead of jumping in full-time with everyone in the office at the same time right away, McGregor notes that many companies will be using hybrid models. People will work from home part of the week and perhaps two to three days per week in the office. This time in the office would be considered “collaboration days.” Unlike the old days, when collaboration often happened unplanned and on the fly, the new model will require forethought, McGregor quotes Liz Burow, a consultant and former vice president of Workplace Strategy at WeWork, as saying, “I think you’ll hear a lot more about HR departments saying we have ‘no meeting Mondays’ and clear, intentional days of the week [for different activities]. You have to manage flexibility.”

My own wish list includes a timeline for required vaccination (unless employees have a note from their doctor stating they cannot be vaccinated for health reasons) and greater understanding of sick days. More times than I’d like to admit, I have gone to the office with a raging cold, likely sickening co-workers. There was no logistical reason for doing this. As I have been doing for months now, I easily could have done my work from home. It was just that I had a feeling it was expected I show up in person unless I was too sick to get up from the couch. Prior to the pandemic, there was little-to-no concern for spreading germs to others. If you didn’t show up in-person at the office for a week—even if you were working from home—people would start to raise eyebrows and gossip. They would talk like you were getting away with something.

Maybe a virtue of the pandemic is that it showed us how little physical location, and particular hours worked, makes to the end product and delivery of work. It would be great if we could continue putting the emphasis where it belongs at work, rather than on the kind of silly posturing some of us have observed. Apparently, it doesn’t make you a more valuable employee because you stayed at the office 12 hours instead of nine—not when your co-worker did the same, or better, work from her living room sofa in half the time.

How will your office experience look and feel different in 2021? What are some of the ways the pandemic has permanently improved it? How has it been permanently impacted for the worse?