The Workplace of Tomorrow: Not as Silly as They Predicted, Not as Bad as You Fear: Mid-century was the golden age of futurism and if you are of a certain (ahem) age, you spent far too many hours on Saturday morning watching cartoons about The World of Tomorrow. Flying cars and jet packs featured prominently, along with voice activated appliances, innumerable tv screens, robots that sweep up after you: everything the middle-class, white, heterosexual, single income family could need. The best minds of the Boomer generation predicted Skynet would become sentient on August 4, 1997, and set out to destroy humanity shortly thereafter. The best minds of my generation were slightly kinder: our robot overlords let us think we lived in an imperfect dream world.
I’ve been thinking about these days of past future recently because we’re at a crossroads. Articles abound predicting what our workplaces will look like as businesses reopen, but all we know for sure is that it won’t be the same. Even after a vaccine for COVID-19 is widely available and herd immunity kicks in, some changes will be permanent. There is no hard reset to January 2020.
THE DISCRIMINATION WE ARE NOT SEEING
When the pandemic first took hold in New York, we thought we would see rampant discrimination on the basis of COVID-19 status, risk of COVID-19 exposure, or risk of serious complications from COVID-19. Frankly, our only frame of reference was HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. We expected people to have the same irrational fear or working alongside someone who had been sick or may have been exposed.
While many people are, naturally, fearful of developing COVID-19, we are not seeing the fear of the individuals affected as we did at the height of the AIDS crisis. Instead, people are behaving compassionately and, despite the outliers we see in the news, accept inconveniences like hunkering down and wearing PPE because we recognize how deadly COVID-19 is. Fogged-up glasses are no big deal compared with the inability to breath.
Funny enough, I think we have to thank Princess Diana for this. One of her greatest legacies is that she humanized people with HIV/AIDS and help the world to recognize that the sick deserve our compassion even when the illness is scary.
THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY
The post-COVID workplace is the great unknown. While every employer is required to provide a safe workplace, for many industries compliance has consisted of little more than making sure exit routes are unlocked in case of fire. The closest thing to safety equipment I’ve used in 30 years of office work is dishwashing gloves. Tech employers that have never considered the risks of injury their employees face, now have to consider how to force social distancing in open, sit where you want, workplaces. Law firms have to consider the time a virus can survive on the coffee machine, or how frequently keyboards should be sanitized. The healthcare and construction industries are way ahead of the game since they’ve had to think about worker safety for more than a century.
Some of the changes employers need to make will be costly, inconvenient, or seemingly illogical and unnecessary. OSHA’s Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 has a lot of good information for how to minimize the risk of transmission in the workplace in general, but employers have to know to look for it and use it. One family member of mine, for example, works for an engineering firm that reopened its office last week. The owners do not think it is required to make any changes to ensure its employees are safe from COVID. My family member satisfies her own safety concerns with the knowledge that she spends most of the day alone in her office and the liberal use sanitizing wipes. Her employer, however, should be analyzing the workspace and how employees interact with each other to determine if temperature checks, masks, and an aggressive cleaning schedule should be implemented.
This knowledge gap leads us to believe that we will see an uptick in OSHA-related employment issues through the end of the year, as businesses reopen. Employees will want to know their legal rights before they file a complaint with OSHA, and some employers will retaliate against whistleblowers. Unless an employer does something remarkably stupid, I don’t expect the post-COVID workplace to be a breeding ground for class action lawsuits.
Overall, I’m optimistic about The Workplace of Tomorrow. I think employers will do their best to keep their employees safe even if it requires a little nudging, and people will continue to do what we can to avoid transmitting this deadly disease. We may not have flying cars and jetpacks, but we will have compassionate people who want to do the right thing. Not a bad trade-off.
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