No more handshakes

The Future of Work in a Post-Pandemic World

We talked to three local experts about what the workplace is going to look like after the coronavirus crisis.

By Catherine Wendlandt June 9, 2020 Published in the June 2020 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Amy Kinkead

This past spring the entire way we work was thrown out the window, as thousands of Houstonians lost their jobs thanks to the economic fallout from the global epidemic and thousands more transitioned to working full-time from home. For many, as navigating the mute button on Zoom became a daily ritual, the rush-hour parking lot that was US 290 faded into distant memory.

But what will next spring look like? And the spring after that? How will COVID-19 affect the way we work in the years to come? We turned to three local experts to explain how work could change here in Houston—because it will change—in a post-pandemic world.

The recovery won’t happen overnight

It will likely take the Bayou City 12 to 16 months to recover from the economic downturn of this spring, because the pandemic has absolutely walloped Houston’s economy, says Jamie Belinne, a professor at the UH C.T. Bauer College of Business. For now that means we’re going to see fewer jobs, with employers finding all kinds of ways to cut costs.

But long term? Employers are undoubtedly taking stock of how cost-inefficient the traditional office sometimes is as the pandemic plays out. “Companies will realize they need less office space,” says Bill Fulton, director of Rice’s Kinder Institute: “You don’t necessarily need a permanent office or a permanent desk.”

More Houstonians are going to be home-officing

We can expect to see a boom in telecommuting, as people master tools like Slack and Zoom and otherwise get more comfortable with their home-office setup. “Personally I’d much prefer to be in the office because all my stuff is there, and I like my stuff where I put it,” Belinne says. “Now that I’ve set up at home, I can work here comfortably. I think a lot of people are going to discover this along with me.”

But don’t throw out your office clothes and vow to don only athleisure wear for your 9-to-5 just yet. For starters, some studies show that dressing up actually helps people feel more focused while on the job. You also might find that, ultimately, you prefer leaving the house to do your work.

“There’s a sort of euphoria period,” says Jonathan Miles, a Rice lecturer who studies teams and technology in the workplace, when people begin to work from home—hence the comfortable clothes and 20-minute yoga breaks. But over time the muddled lines between home and office can lead to longer (albeit less strenuous) work hours with many distractions—from leaf blowers to dogs that need a bath—decreasing productivity, Miles contends. It’s easy to say, ‘No, I’m busy’ to a coworker. It’s harder to say that to your spouse.

There will be more choices about how and when you work

While 38 percent of American workers reported they couldn’t work at home and didn’t have a flexible schedule in 2017–18, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, COVID-19 has almost certainly changed that, according to Miles. Millennials and Gen Z workers were probably already wanting these options, but going forward even older generations, who never considered home officing before, are likely to see them as viable options, says Miles.

“Where I think it becomes interesting is where the Gen X and even Boomers now are going, ‘Oh, I always thought this wasn’t possible,’” he says. And employees could start demanding more flexible schedules to match their new situations, Miles notes, especially as companies “literally can’t come up with a good reason why this isn’t possible anymore.”

You'll miss some things, though

Office communication, for one. The longer coworkers remain apart, the more you’ll see group camaraderie and office dynamics—even Netflix discussions and, surprise, doughnuts!—wane. “Folks still want to have contact with their coworkers,” Belinne says, but video calls just don’t deliver the same satisfaction as a face-to-face talk.

We may see people avoiding large crowds, shaking hands less often, and respecting personal space more, too, so say goodbye to that firm handshake your dad taught you when you were a kid. “I think we’ll have a germaphobic society,” Belinne says.

Still, there’s a crucial upside

“The decentralization of work in downtown, the Galleria, and the Energy Corridor will mean fewer people on the road,” Fulton says. That’s right: one key upshot of a shift to working from home is no more rush hour. “And if you do have to drive anywhere in Houston,” Belinne says, “you’ll finally be able to drive the actual speed limit, the way you’ve always wanted to drive on the freeway.”

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