To put it bluntly: “What we thought about the office is going to be very different,” says futurist Robert Moran. “It’s clear that a fairly large minority [of workers] are not going back to being 9 to 5.”
Indeed, large swaths of office workers in Northern Virginia, where a little more than half of the estimated 1.5 million people employed in the region are working desk jobs, have been working from home for the past 12 months. And some CEOs say it’s unclear when—if ever—they’ll bring their workforce back in the office full time.
Carfax, headquartered in Centreville, for example, was able to transition to everyone working remotely in March 2020 “without missing a beat,” says Adrienne Webster, vice president of human resources at Carfax, mostly as a result of how the business already worked with remote capabilities such as cloud technology. “It was a seamless transition,” she says.
Webster says she doesn’t know when Carfax employees will go back to the office but that they continue to discuss what the new office will look like. She says that the company has always put a lot of emphasis on employee collaboration—something that’s not as easy with a remote workforce—but they’ve tried to keep employees engaged virtually throughout the pandemic. “Employee engagement is easier when people are together and see each other in person,” Webster says. “So it’s an interesting time to try to balance that engagement and that collaboration. We are thinking [about] what that looks like in the new world.”
David Rehr, director of the Center for Business Civic Engagement at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, says that there are a couple of things happening when it comes to office life. “There is still the fear factor of COVID, where office workers will stay home because they know that they can be safe at home,” he says. “They are [wondering], if they come into the office, and they touch an elevator button, will they get COVID or not? Or if they talk to someone and that person coughs on them, but they have a mask on, can they get it or not? That is a really serious thing for a lot of people.”
“We seem to care less about getting things done in a 9-to-5 workday [and more] about getting things done on time and getting the right results.”
He says that the re-leasing of empty office buildings will begin to happen over time: “If I was making an investment in commercial real estate, I would not be too eager about it coming back. It’s not about just all the buildings, but the people, too.”
With the new Biden administration, there will likely be more government programs coming, which could help fill those empty buildings. But everyone, including managers and employees, has become more comfortable with teleworking, says Rehr. “There is a lot more ease of knowing that the jobs will be completed on time, so there is no worry about shirking.”
Rehr says businesses have learned that some people work at night and get more done and can now adjust their schedule. “We seem to care less about getting things done in a 9-to-5 workday [and more] about getting things done on time and getting the right results.”
The same goes for the federal workforce, which has largely been working from home since the outset of the pandemic. According to a new survey by the Government Business Council, released in September 2020, the majority of federal workers said they expected to remain working from home for at least another six months, meaning the earliest they’d see a return to the office is spring 2021.
In Loudoun County, Buddy Rizer, the executive director for the county’s economic development, says that technology companies such as data centers, an industry that hasn’t necessarily been negatively impacted by the pandemic, have continued to grow over the past year.
However, they are seeing a lack of new commercial development deals in the pipeline, he says, but they are still working on deals they began nearly two years ago. “We are waiting on some companies to re-assess their needs,” he says. “They may look at how they want to allocate space and what to do about elevators. That is where people don’t know the answers yet.”
Moving forward, it does look like office work will strike a balance between virtual and in person, says futurist Moran. “We always knew that we could work remotely and had the technology to do it. Businesses that have a large number of white-collar workers will balance the benefits of having teams together versus cost savings. The office will be a place you’re going to come in and brainstorm [with co-workers].”
After the Pandemic
- What will change: More flexibility with working from home, proliferation of the “knowmad,” a term coined to describe knowledge workers who can do their job from anywhere.
- What will return to normal: Many workers will return to the office in some capacity in order to provide opportunities to collaborate in person with teammates.