Will coronavirus kill the traditional office as we know it?

WATCH: SFU professor and remote working expert Terri Griffith explains how the current pandemic may alter how workplaces operate.

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, many Canadians continue to work from home because their workplaces don’t allow for a minimum of two metres (six feet) between employees — the physical-distancing guidelines recommended by public health.

The shift has majorly impacted organizations, and as a result, some — like Shopify — have decided to do away with the office completely.

Last week, the Canadian tech giant announced it will keep its offices closed until the end of 2021 to prepare for the company’s permanent work-for-home reality. When those offices do reopen, most employees will continue to work from home.

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“Shopify is a digital by default company,” CEO Tobi Lutke tweeted. “Office centricity is over.”

Similarly, earlier this month, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told his employees that offices would not reopen until at least September, and even then, whoever wants to work remotely can do so “indefinitely.”

Is this the beginning of a cultural turning point? Laurent Lapierre, professor of workplace behaviour and health at the University of Ottawa, thinks it’s possible, but we won’t know for sure until more companies make the same move.

“I think it’s going to take a lot more than just a few organizations (to say) you’re working from home … (but) that’s going to be, I would imagine, a hard sell for many employers and employees,” Lapierre said.

Whether a company without a central workspace can succeed is the ultimate question.

“There are many reasons to expect that forcing people to work from home more … than they would prefer can cause significant problems downstream,” Lapierre said.

He refers to the “transitional process” that occurs for most people when they physically move from their home to their work.

“There’s this physical separation that occurs … and that transitional process helps you transition to your work person,” Lapierre said.

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“You get to work and now you’re surrounded by all sorts of factors that give you cues relevant to work life.”

Those cues signal to the employee to talk about what’s going on at work, to get information relevant to the work and to feel a sense of connection to others, said Lapierre. When those cues are absent, often that sense of connection is lost, too.

Every employee is vastly different in terms of what they need from their employer to be productive and engaged, said Tina Dacin, professor of strategy and organizational behaviour at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. She also worries about those who don’t excel at working from home.

“I think any company that assumes that all its employees face the same needs and types of accommodations … is going to suffer in the long term,” Dacin told Global News.

Immediate challenges

According to experts, companies that remove the central workspace will likely struggle with disengaged employees, low productivity and a blurring of work and home life.

Some people need a physical office and to see colleagues for “energy,” Dacin said.

“Those people will miss that connection … laughing with colleagues … saying good morning … feeling like (they) belong to something.”

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Eddy Ng, management professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, is most concerned about “managing productivity and teams virtually.”

“Most supervisors and managers are not trained and do not have the experience of managing virtually,” Ng said.

Technology will become key for monitoring work performance, Ng said, but it’s unclear whether this will be as effective as in-person management.

Balancing home life with work life — and drawing clear boundaries between the two — may also become very difficult, Lapierre said.

Although having family around can manage feelings of isolation, Lapierre said, it can also cause major distractions during business hours.

“(Family) can be a huge source of strength … and a source of distraction,” Lapierre said. “There’s an increased demand at home for some people, and that needs to be taken into consideration.”

New payment structure

There will also be many questions about creating home office spaces that are healthy and safe from an ergonomic standpoint. Who is responsible for doing so and who will foot the bill?

A robust home office has a “good desk and chair (in) a quiet space with a great headset and good lighting,” Dacin said. It should also have a strong internet connection.

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According to Ng, some workplaces have started providing a “technology allowance” for employees to acquire these items.

“I suspect in the future, the reimbursement will depend on whether it is an employer or employee request to work from home,” Ng said. If an employer requires that the employee works from home, the employer should cover the costs.

Will it last forever?

Can a company permanently shift to remote-only work? Most experts don’t think so.

Ng predicts companies that try to move forward without a central workspace will struggle with “management and control.”

“There will (need to) be team huddles to develop connectedness and a new work culture,” Ng said.

Dacin is also skeptical — she foresees spending less time at the office, but she doesn’t think the physical space will disappear altogether.

“Some people are very good at working from home … and (other people) are actually really struggling,” Dacin said.

“While we may visit our offices less, our time together at the office may look very different (after the pandemic).”

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Dacin is eager to see what companies like Shopify are going to do to keep employees engaged with the organization and passionate about their work.

“What (is the company) going to do to ensure they’re still connecting with me and reinforcing that I’m still adding value?” she said.

“The co-creation of expectations and deliverables is going to be really key.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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