What Has COVID-19 Done to the Tech Workplace?

The pandemic has impacted all workplaces, but especially those favoring open, communal office cultures. While not my cup of tea, for many tech-industry employees, a highly interactive, collaborative work environment is the norm. The question is whether these interaction-based offices will ever return to exactly what they were in pre-pandemic days.

An article in IEEE Spectrum by Tekla S. Perry asks just this question, including information from a recent survey of technology professionals. Blind, a company that operates private social networks for tech employees, reached out to its members several times during the last few months to find out how remote work is going for them—and whether permanent remote work would open up the possibility of moving to a less tech-centric part of the country or world. Perry had a few additional questions, which Blind distributed for the writer as a short survey in late June.

A picture was painted from the survey of “a tech workforce that is generally OK with staying at home. Facebook employees are the rare exception: Fewer may be looking for a permanent work-at-home option than CEO Mark Zuckerberg anticipates. By contrast, Apple employees, unlikely to be offered work-at-home options, actually would love the opportunity,” Perry writes.

An interesting point is that full-time working from home, often presented as a valuable fringe benefit, doesn’t excite most of the tech employees responding to the survey. Most want to at least come to the office one or two times a week: “Post-Coronavirus, however, most do expect—indeed, want—to go back to the office at least some of the time.”

When I think of the tech sector, I think of young people—people, who statistically speaking, would be at the lowest risk of contracting a life-threatening case of Coronavirus. It turns out I’m not wrong. According to a survey by Statista from a few years ago, most employees in the tech world are in their late 20s. Here’s a novel idea: Allow employees without underlying health conditions to return to their communal tech offices with no changes at all planned, but with employee education on protecting others outside the office. Employees could be given the option to return in-person to their office, understanding the risks, and understanding that if they do so, it would be best to keep away from in-person interactions with relatives and friends age 65 and older, and those with underlying health conditions. This idea amounts to employees, who seem to thrive in a communal environment, basically quarantining together. To take an extra step toward safety, employees and members of their households could be required to take COVID-19 tests before the employee is allowed to return. Employees would be tasked after that point with self-monitoring, staying away from their close-knit, communal office if they have any symptoms of sickness or if they have been exposed to anyone who recently contracted the virus.

If this sounds like a risky plan, consider the dangers of isolation for a young person who lives alone, without a family of his or her own. That isolation danger probably is compounded for a person who is used to a highly interactive, in-person work environment. Julianne Holt-Lunstad explored the isolation caused by the pandemic in an article in Health Affairs:“Preliminary surveys suggest that within the first month of COVID-19, loneliness increased by 20 to 30 percent, and emotional distress tripled. While several surveys are still ongoing to capture the full extent of the problem, current evidence suggests the pre-existing public health crisis of social isolation and loneliness may be far more widespread than previously estimated,” Holt-Lunstad writes. Young tech employees used to a lively office with shared work and fun, who suddenly find themselves saddled alone in front of their computer day after day, would seem prime candidates for emotional distress and related psychological conditions such as depression. It sounds like it’s much more likely young tech workers in their 20s or 30s, or even 40s, will suffer seriously from mental problems caused by isolation than from the virus.

When assessing the risk of bringing employees back to your office, and considering how much of your old normal you can resume, it’s important to look at the decision in a nuanced way. Analyze your average employee demographics, and assess the greatest risk to their health and productivity. You may be shocked to discover that it isn’t COVID-19, but something potentially more serious. The benefits of an in-person office can extend beyond volume and quality of work to the psychological wellness of your employees.

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