Should Working Independently Be Encouraged in the Age of COVID-19?

My company announced last week that it was ready to welcome New York City employees back to the office on a voluntary basis. We were sent an elaborate, color-coded spreadsheet with tabs for each week for the next six weeks showing which work groups can come in on which days. It looks like each work group will have the opportunity to be in the office two days per week. We have been told to wear a face covering whenever we are not sitting at our desk. My boss tells me that our formerly relaxing lounge area with complimentary coffee bar has been turned into a COVID-19 sterilization requisition area with boxes of supplies lining the wall. The coffee bar has been closed until further notice.

With such thorough preparations and precautions taking place at my own company, I was curious how other companies are managing to bring employees back to the office. I found an interesting article on on the subject. Dan Packel notes that voluntary employee behavioral changes help maintain social distancing. He cites recent research findings from workplace design consultant VergeSense: “Prior to the arrival of the Coronavirus, the company used sensors to observe the mechanics of workplace collaboration. But it retooled as the infection’s spread disrupted routines, training an eye on social distancing…VergeSense found that employees were embracing solo work before the implementation of stay-at-home mandates, and that those who have returned to the office have increased the amount of work they do on their own.”

The good news is employees appear, on their own, to have increased the time they spend alone. In April and May, single-person events—such as spending time alone at a desk, in a phone booth, or in an alternative workspace—increased from 83 percent of recorded activities to 88 percent.

VergeSense says companies will want to consider ways to make employees feel safe coming back to the office. I would add a caveat to that. You want them to feel safe returning to an in-person workplace, but you want to encourage them to keep up their expanded alone time and independent work routines. As much as collaboration is valued in modern society, a pandemic is no time to prioritize it. The requirements of the strange time we’re in make compulsive in-person collaboration a liability rather than an advantage. The social distancing requirements of the times provide a perfect opportunity to enhance employees’ abilities to work independently—a skill many Millennials and Generation Z employees probably lack.

Those raised under a parenting approach that emphasized structured, highly monitored group activities, with every hour of every day accounted for, could probably use a lesson in independence. It might be a refreshing challenge for young people to approach a project from an independent work perspective. Each member of the work group would be assigned their own portion of the project to complete—on his or her own—with no requirement for frequent check-ins or updates to the group. The guidelines and goals for each person’s part of the project would be set, and then each person would be responsible for independently fulfilling the goals of his or her assignment. There could be one virtual meeting at the beginning of the project and another virtual meeting at the end, and no meetings in between, unless an insurmountable challenge arises. Does that sound crazy or like a recipe for disaster? It sounds logical to me, but I’m an introvert who loves nothing more than working on her own. You might say I’m a social-distancing natural.

What are you finding as employees return to in-person work at the office? What do you think of the value of encouraging employees to be independent in their work, rather than requiring the usual level of collaboration? Are there important lessons to be learned from asking employees to try working on their own?


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