Insights & Expertise

How Coronavirus Could Change the Future of Work

by Rachel Kipp

laptop on a bed in the dark

Coronavirus is giving companies across the world a crash course in remote work, and it could spur wider change in our notion of what it really means to be “at the office.”

“There’s an opportunity in any type of crisis for some new thinking to occur about what we mean by absence and presence and attendance,” says Eric Patton, Ph.D., an associate professor of management. Patton has extensively studied workplace absenteeism and how others react when a co-worker is out. “Companies are being forced to think about their options for allowing people to work from home and how can they make that a fair system for people who can’t partake in the option.”

According to Patton, research shows both upsides and downsides to remote work – on the one hand, companies get to expand their talent pool outside the city where they are located while also reducing space needs. On the other, the lines between work and life tend to become even blurrier, and face-to-face social interaction has been shown to result in stronger teams.

“There’s been a trend over the last 10 years or so to understand remote working and gauge whether there are good business reasons to move in that direction,” Patton says. “Especially in the IT field and the more administrative office type positions, this has been going on for a long time. I think the current issue [with coronavirus] is going to be expanding the notion of who can actually stay home.”

Remote work brings up several key issues that companies, managers and individual workers need to consider – and the current coronavirus threat means many are having to do so on a speedier timeline:

There’s an opportunity in any type of crisis for some new thinking to occur about what we mean by absence and presence and attendance."

Eric Patton, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Management

1. Technology: The expansion of remote work has been made possible by virtual communication tools like Skype, Zoom and Slack. According to Patton, companies need to consider how sophisticated a tool they need to perform core work operations, whether the majority of the workforce is tech savvy enough to use it effectively, and if the chosen tool has the capacity to withstand a high volume of use.

“Companies need to be thinking about not only do we have the skills to go remote and do we have the tools, but whether these tools will be able to handle a 500% increase in traffic,” Patton says.

2. Social interaction:  Companies including Yahoo and IBM have made headlines in recent years for ending remote work policies because leadership felt that teams communicate and collaborate more effectively if they were working face-to-face. 

There is some truth to those arguments, Patton says, noting that studies have shown co-workers don’t have the same level of trust for each other if they are only acquainted virtually. “We are social animals and if we’re all going to be working alone in our homes, there is something that will be lost,” Patton says.

While social distancing is part of the protocol for slowing the spread of coronavirus, going forward, Patton says companies could take a cue from counterparts who are fully virtual and create opportunities where remote co-workers can get together in person.

3. The ‘presenteeism’ problem: In Patton’s studies of absenteeism, he has also noticed the growing problem of “presenteeism,” or when workers continue to come to the office even if they are sick. In some cases, people won’t be paid if they don’t work; in others, workers fear the stigma of staying home.

But either way, sick employees reporting for duty ends up costing companies over the long-term, Patton says, noting that coronavirus could be the jumping off point for important discussions about expanding paid sick time or reducing the backlash workers feel over taking a sick day.

“Maybe we’ll start rethinking some of these policies and practices that might force people to go to work sick when they shouldn’t,” Patton says. “It’s not good for companies, either, when their employees are showing up and not being productive.”

4. Work-life balance: The paradox of remote work is that while managers or co-workers at the office might assume the co-worker at home is “goofing off,” the reality may be that some are actually working more than they would have otherwise.  

“Some people may end up working 24 hours a day because they no longer have the clear delineation between work and home,” Patton says.

To avoid this problem, employees and managers must collaborate to redraw those lines – which could become even more complicated during the current crisis because many people are being asked to work remotely while their spouses and children are at home as well, because their offices and schools are closed.

“It’s going to take some planning on everybody’s part in terms of delineating my day when I’m working from home and also coordinating what needs to be done, what are the deadlines I need to meet and when do I need to be available for discussion or online meetings,” Patton says. “This might, in a way, usher in some long-term changes in how we work, potentially for the better.”