Death of the water cooler: How this pandemic will change work forever

By Carson Lewis | Assistant Digital Managing Editor

Many major changes have been made to the American lifestyle due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mask wearing, social distancing and an upending of the sports world are just some of the biggest changes to our daily lives. However, some of the adjustments that will affect society for decades to come have yet to be seen.

I believe that labor and the American workplace will be profoundly affected by this pandemic. When students graduate from college in the next few years, they will be lucky to hold a job — and that job will likely look different from anything in the history of American business.

Necessity has caused companies to acknowledge the benefit of working from home, and many jobs have transitioned to online only. I’m certain that many people experienced that over this summer, with family members and friends no longer having to commute to the office for work. This has some benefits, including reduced importance on “work clothing,” allowing for some employees to have more freedom in their daily wear during the weekdays.

However, this increased focus on working from home has some managers and bosses worried. The level of control they once had in the office has been threatened. In a recent article for Slate, Alison Green, who runs the blog “Ask a Manager,” described the ways in which some managers are treating the issue.

“At Ask a Manager, an alarming number of people have shared stories with me of managers insisting on multiple detailed status updates every day, holding unnecessary lengthy daily team meetings (sometimes hours a day) and even requiring employees to keep their webcams on all day so they can be observed over video as they work,” Green said.

This is likely to become the new normal in many jobs. Increased worker surveillance has already become normal in many workforces that prioritize productivity. With online work becoming a necessity, it will continue to escalate.

While some workplaces return to the old way of doing things in person, some businesses may never transition back. In May, Twitter announced that many of their employees could work from home — permanently. Google has said that its employees will work from home until at least 2021. An assortment of other companies have followed in those footsteps, including Amazon corporate and Sony Music.

While some companies are offering benefits to workers at home in the form of reimbursement for child care expenses, labor rights have not prepared for such a massive move to a different form of employment. This will likely become a problem for groups that already find it harder to hold employment: women with children and those with poor internet access.

Access to fast, affordable internet service is essential in the world of telecommuting post-COVID-19. The costs of production, including office costs and simple things such as air conditioning, water fountains and electricity will be pushed onto the employee, who now will have to pay for those things themselves with the income they generate from their employment.

What will happen when the places of business that adorn our cities’ skylines sit emptier than usual? How will people react when the lack of community in the workplace, once a major source of connections for American adults, vanishes? What will fill that space? It’s clear that we are undergoing a new revolution in the way work takes place, but the beginnings of it may be rough, especially for employees.