The New Normal in the Workplace: Long-Term Trends Resulting from the Pandemic

The New Normal in the Workplace: Long-Term Trends Resulting from the Pandemic

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, there has been immense upheaval in the American workplace. Offices rapidly shifted to fully remote work, then took steps to reopen, and are now settling into a hybrid system. Other economic sectors — retail stores, hospitality sectors such as hotels and restaurants, grocery stores, and health care, for example — did not have the option of having employees work remotely and have had to adapt to erratic revenue and high employee turnover. All have had to adapt their work environment to meet new health and safety protocols.

Recently, there has been considerable analysis of the pandemic’s long-term effects on the workplace and on the relationship between employers and employees. Several themes have emerged:

  • Expect continued growth of fully remote and hybrid schedules for managers, support staff and knowledge employees. The predominant hybrid model has in-office work Tuesday through Thursday and remote work on Monday and Friday.
  • Employers will increasingly rely on wellness metrics to gauge employee satisfaction.
    • Physical — remote working can lead to sedentary lifestyle.
    • Mental — stress and burnout.
    • Financial — added expenses related to childcare, parental care, etc.
  • For office workers, particularly younger employees, pay scale is becoming secondary to other factors in job satisfaction. These include a better work/life balance and their employer’s level of engagement on social and cultural issues.
  • Total office floor space will not decline significantly, but will be reconfigured to reduce crowding and accommodate both hybrid work schedules and COVID-19 health protocols.
    • Fewer assigned cubicles or offices. 
    • Workstations available to any employee for Zoom calls, etc. 
    • More open space for socially distanced employee interaction.
    • More rooms designated for meetings and videoconferences.
    • Easily movable desks, partitions and area dividers.
  • Expect accelerated automation of routine tasks and deployment of robots and AI, especially in industries where people work in close proximity to each other or in customer-facing situations where remote work is not feasible, including factories, warehouses, grocery stores and retail establishments. Employees will need to be reskilled to work with these technologies.
  • Automation is also taking hold at the managerial level. A recent study in the Harvard Business Review predicted that up to 65% of managerial tasks may be automated by 2025, including scheduling and providing performance feedback to employees.

The expansion of remote and hybrid work is bringing opportunities and challenges. Since fully remote workers can live anywhere, employers have a broader pool of job candidates to choose from. At the same time, it may increase employee turnover. Some employers are responding to this by replacing full-time employees with contingent and gig workers. Others are offering knowledge workers greater control over their daily work schedule and a shorter workweek in place of higher pay.

Remote and hybrid work formats are raising new fairness issues. The Harvard study noted that hybrid working will require more effort to meet diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) goals. Women and people of color prefer remote work more than white men, but remote workers tend to be promoted less and are often seen as lower performing. Other issues include whether remote and on-site employees will have equal access to flexible scheduling and whether employees who relocate to a less expensive part of the country should take a pay cut.

Having a geographically dispersed workforce is also creating new IT challenges, including the need to ensure all remote employees have the same baseline technology and access to tech support. It will increase the complexity of ensuring robust cybersecurity. It is also driving greater reliance on data collection to measure employee performance — tracking remote computer use, monitoring internal communications, and collecting health and safety data.

OSHA Considering Next Step on Vaccine Standard for Employers

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) may not be done with its effort to require large employers to force workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or else submit to weekly testing. 

OSHA announced last month that it has withdrawn its emergency temporary standard after it was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court; however, the safety agency said it is considering a permanent standard in place of the emergency order.

OSHA says it “is prioritizing its resources to focus on finalizing a permanent COVID-19 Healthcare Standard.” A permanent standard would require months of hearings and comment periods before taking effect. OSHA has said it believes it could have a permanent standard ready within six to eight months, although previous permanent standards have taken years to be approved. 

OSHA has the authority to issue emergency rules quickly and bypass several steps required of a permanent standard. This emergency temporary standard (ETS) would have expired in six months, and OSHA had said it would use the six months to prepare a permanent standard.

Although the Supreme Court struck down the OSHA vaccine mandate, businesses and organizations are free to implement their own vaccine requirements if the requirements comply with EEOC guidelines. A recent poll from Mercer finds 44% of employers require employees who work on-site to be vaccinated, and another 6% of employers plan to implement vaccine requirements. Some 42% of employers say they will not implement a vaccine requirement.

DOL to Propose Changes to Overtime Rules & Joint Employment

Businesses and organizations could have the number of employees they can exempt from overtime pay reduced. The Department of Labor (DOL) will issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in April that will likely make more workers eligible for overtime pay by increasing the minimum salary level of the so-called white-collar exemption to overtime pay rules under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

The FLSA requires workers be paid 1 1/2 times their regular pay rate for all hours worked beyond 40 in a workweek, unless they fall under an exemption. To qualify for the exemption, employees must perform certain duties, be paid on a salary basis, and meet a minimum salary threshold. The current minimum salary standard is $35,568 a year, or $684 a week. It was put in place in 2020 after a federal court struck down an Obama administration attempt in 2016 to increase the minimum to $47,660, from $23,660. 

Congressional Democrats have called for an increase to $82,000 by 2026. Insiders believe the DOL will increase the minimum to near the $47,660 proposed in 2016, and that it could also include a mechanism calling for automatic updates.

More than 100 business and industry groups have asked the DOL to allow them to comment on any proposed changes before the rule is announced. 

Employers also are likely to see new federal regulations this year that would change the conditions under which two employers are considered joint employers. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was expected to issue a new rule in February to change its standard for determining when one company jointly employs another firm’s workers.

Under federal law, joint employment results in both companies sharing liability for unfair labor practices and responsibility for union bargaining. The current employer-friendly standard for determining joint employment was set in 2020 by a Republican-controlled NLRB under the Trump administration and is being challenged in federal court by the Service Employees International Union. With Democrats now holding a 3-2 majority of the board, most observers believe the board will institute a more employee-friendly standard.

Federal Legislation Limits Pre-Dispute Agreements for Arbitration

A bill preventing employers from enforcing pre-dispute agreements that require employees to arbitrate sexual assault or harassment claims has passed both houses of Congress with bipartisan support and is awaiting the signature of President Joe Biden, who has said he supports the legislation.

HR 4445, the “Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021,” would amend the Federal Arbitration Act to make it easier for an employee alleging sexual assault or harassment to bring suit in court, regardless of whether the employee had previously signed an agreement to arbitrate such disputes.

Some in the employment community worry the bill could be the beginning of a slippery slope, as the White House has stated that it supports the bill’s passage and looks forward to broader legislation to address “other forced arbitration matters, including arbitration of claims regarding discrimination on the basis of race, wage theft, and unfair labor practices.”

The bill’s impact is not limited to employees, as many consumer services, such as property leases, ride-sharing apps, home improvement contracts, etc., often include contract language forcing consumers to arbitrate any legal claims concerning sexual harassment or assault.

Other significant provisions include the following:

  • Prospective plaintiffs, not the defendants, can choose whether to litigate their claims in court or through arbitration, even if they previously signed an agreement limiting their legal remedies to arbitration only.
  • Individuals may bring suit individually or as a class (through a class-action lawsuit), even if they signed an agreement waiving their right to collective legal action.
  • Any existing forced arbitration clauses or contracts are now voidable, even if signed before HR 4445 becomes law. Prior cases that have been completed through forced arbitration cannot be reopened and litigated in court.

Survey Signals Workers’ Concern with Adequate Safety Protocols

As COVID-19 variants spread, an overwhelming majority of workers (87%) surveyed say they are concerned about working in an office building. Despite the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines, the level of concern is 19 percentage points higher compared to a similar study in 2021.

The survey was conducted in January 2022 for Honeywell by Wakefield Research, which interviewed 3,000 office workers who typically work in buildings with 500 or more employees across the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, India, the Middle East and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Among its key findings: 62% of respondents said they would leave their job if their employer did not take necessary measures to create a healthier indoor environment that promotes well-being.

Respondents were also asked what poses a bigger threat to their safety, with 57% citing co-workers not following safety guidelines and 43% citing outdated ventilation systems.

The significant increase in workers’ concerns with workplace safety as a result of COVID reinforces the ongoing challenge of employers to prioritize creating safer and healthier workspaces, especially with improving indoor air quality and tracking compliance to guidelines such as social distancing and mask wearing.

Increased Security Challenges Seen in the Workplace

Although COVID-19 vaccinations and more frequent testing have allowed organizations to restore some level of normalcy, closures, more limited hours and staffing uncertainties have lingered, creating escalating security challenges.

A recent survey by security company Pro-Vigil of business operations leaders shows more than one in four leaders expects an increase in physical security incidents during 2022. Most cite ongoing supply chain issues, with reduced business hours and a shortage of security guards also frequently cited.

Key findings of the survey include:

  • 28% of respondents said they saw an increase in physical security incidents in 2021, up from 20% of respondents in 2020.
  • Nearly 27% said they anticipate a continued rise in incidents in 2022.
  • Nearly 57% said they have not updated their security strategies in the face of these growing threats.
  • Nearly 39% said supply chain issues related to the pandemic are behind the increase, as major disruptions in the supply chain — including labor and material shortages and cost surges, as well as delivery delays — have fueled a spike in asset and inventory theft, from heavy equipment, vehicles and lumber to retail items.
  • Reduced business hours (23%) and a shortage of security guards (10%) were also frequently cited.

The survey was conducted between November and December 2021. The majority of the 116 respondents held manager roles within industries such as construction, dealerships (car/boat/RV), manufacturing/industrial, and retail, among others. Most of the respondents’ companies (nearly 75%) had fewer than 100 employees.

The complete survey is available here.

New and Younger Employees More Likely to Be Injured on the Job

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than one-third of work-related nonfatal on-the-job injuries occur in employees who have been on the job less than a year. These workers typically are less familiar with the workplace and its hazards and have received less safety training than long-term employees.

A worker’s age also contributes to injuries. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, employees under the age of 24 are two times more likely to be injured on the job than those over 25.

Workers’ compensation insurance carrier Travelers says there are several steps organizations can take to mitigate workplace hazards. These include:

  • Integrate safety into the hiring process with a formal hiring process and clear job descriptions that help attract qualified job candidates. Job descriptions should convey your safety culture and the organization’s expectations around best practices.
  • Conduct behavioral interviews and background checks to help identify candidates who are likely to fit well into the company’s safety culture. Once hired, safety training can begin on day one before an employee starts executing the tasks of their new role.
  • Conduct a job safety analysis, a process that breaks down each step in a job, describes the hazards associated with each step, and defines the safe work method that minimizes or eliminates each hazard. Safety training based on those risks should be skills-based, rather than awareness-based only, to ensure employees develop a firsthand understanding of proper safety protocols.
  • Continuously train employees, even experienced workers. Just because a new employee is experienced doesn’t mean they understand your safety expectations and procedures.
  • Implement an accident analysis program to identify the root causes of injuries after an accident has occurred. Companies can develop corrective actions to reduce the likelihood of similar accidents and injuries.

Another State Legalizes Medical Marijuana, More Expected to Follow

Mississippi has become the latest state to legalize marijuana in some form, adopting a medical marijuana law that went into effect Feb. 2. The new law authorizes the use of medical cannabis to treat certain debilitating medical conditions, but does not contain employment protections for workers who engage in such use. In fact, the law explicitly states that employers need not facilitate, accommodate or otherwise allow for an employee’s use of medical cannabis, and cannot be sued for taking employment actions based on such use.

Some 37 states, including Texas, and four territories allow for the medical use of cannabis products. Eighteen states, two territories and the District of Columbia have approved cannabis for nonmedical use. 

Lawmakers in several other states are expected to legalize either recreational or medical cannabis in 2022, with momentum building for legalized recreational cannabis in Delaware, Oklahoma, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, according to a Reuters report.

Nearly half of the U.S. population lives in states where adult-use cannabis is legal, and a November 2021 Gallup poll found two in three Americans support legalizing cannabis. The movement to legalize cannabis gained strength in January when business giant Amazon announced it will lobby for federal cannabis reform. Amazon dropped marijuana from its pre-employment drug screening in 2021 for unregulated programs, saying that the increasing number of states adopting some level of cannabis legalization makes it difficult to implement an equitable, consistent and national pre-employment marijuana testing program.


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