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Nicklaus: Coronavirus has changed the way we work, but it probably won't kill office culture

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Balancing work and children while sheltering-at-home

Catherine Precher, a kindergarten teacher at Claymont Elementary in the Parkway School District, multitasks her classroom teaching duties while staying on top of her three children's school and care throughout St. Louis County's stay-at-home order from her home in Wildwood. “Sometimes it can be challenging for her to do her work when she sees them playing,” said Precher, while she helps her first-grade daughter Kelsey, 7, complete work, as she talks with her students while her boys Ryan, 5, and Drew, 2, independently play with blocks on Tuesday, May 12, 2020. Photo by Laurie Skrivan,

David Nicklaus is a business columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

If you really enjoy working in your pajamas, polish up your resume and send it to Facebook, Square or Twitter.

All three tech companies have found their homebound employees so productive during this pandemic that they’re going to let large numbers of people work remotely on a permanent basis.

Corporate America’s unplanned experiment with substituting dining room tables for desks has been so successful, in fact, that some people think the market for office space is headed for long-term decline.

At the very least, office workers are likely to have more flexibility in the future as a result of lessons learned during the coronavirus pandemic. They may be encouraged to perform routine tasks at home, for example, but come to the office to mentor a new employee or plan a complex project.

“The one thing we’ve learned from this period is that organizations are able to be more flexible with employees, including when they work and where they are working from,” said Ashley Hardin, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Washington University’s Olin Business School.

Hardin says she “probably wouldn’t invest in office space right now,” but she doubts that many employers will embrace an all-remote workforce. Humans, it seems, thrive in the presence of other humans.

“One of my concerns would be about the lack of connection and degradation in the quality of relationships you have with co-workers,” Hardin says. Researchers find that where employees report strong bonds with one another, companies see higher levels of creativity, fewer conflicts and even lower production costs.

A company with a strong culture can maintain it for a few months with videoconferences and other forms of remote communication, but Zoom and Slack may not be sufficient to build that culture in the first place, or pass it on to the next generation of employees.

“How do they learn the norms of the workplace?” Hardin asks, referring to new hires. “It’s easy to run into someone and ask a question, but it may be harder to set up a Zoom call.”

“There is a real desire to let people work remotely, and there are a lot of benefits,” Hardin adds. “We will see organizations coming to a sort of balance where people gain flexibility but they still have some face-to-face interaction at work.”

Steve Symsack, a senior vice president at Gershman Commercial Real Estate, says the pandemic has hurt the office space market by putting companies’ expansion plans on hold. He doesn’t think the disruption is permanent, though.

“I don’t see remote work being a lasting or major part of the office environment for most industries,” he said. “People and creativity and the social part of business cannot be overvalued.”

Michelle Rotherham, an associate vice president at CannonDesign, also thinks the death of the large corporate office has been exaggerated. “Office environments will not go away,” she says. “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to completely replace some of their advantages in a completely remote environment.”

That doesn’t mean the office of the future will look like the office of the recent past. Individual workspaces and common areas will be redesigned to address concerns about disease transmission. Conference rooms will be redesigned to facilitate collaboration with remote workers.

Chances are good, however, that most employers will expect you to swap your pajamas for business attire at least some of the time.


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David Nicklaus is a business columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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