Outside the Box: The cafeteria — and other parts of office life — will change dramatically after coronavirus

Outside the Box

No more pressure to head to the office sick?

An office cafeteria in South Korea now has protective screens at every seat. In the U.S., will only prepackaged food be sold?


AFP via Getty Images

The culture of the workplace determines ways people interact with one another, inside and outside the office. Workplace culture is expressed through the shared experiences and behaviors of employees. Whether your culture is dressed in jeans, laid back with impromptu meetups or is khakis with scheduled meetings, the coronavirus pandemic will have implications for the return to the office.

Key aspects of workplace life, no matter your culture, once taken for granted, will be disrupted. Here are five ways office life will never be the same.

Some will stay home — others want the office

Let’s face it, for as long as there have been laptops, dial in modems and the need to meet the cable guy, there has been a stigma about working from home (WFH). This is despite published research, notably by Nicholas Bloom, that has extolled the benefits and productivity boost from the choice to WFH. All the working from home now proves that it is possible to keep business going and not be physically present in the office.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic work from home experiment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 7% of U.S. workers had access to a “flexible workplace” benefit. The current forced WFH situation is not an optimal transition for employees, due to four factors: children, space, privacy and choice. Not all employees would choose to work from home. Many employees and their managers would like to return to the office, knowing in the future working from home one day a week will no longer be a battle.

Bottom line, destigmatizing WFH can benefit everyone providing employees choice and higher quality of life, positive environmental impacts and lower corporate real-estate costs.

Read:‘I was told I could never work remotely’: Before coronavirus, workers with disabilities say they implored employers to allow them to work from home

Employees will feel more empowered

While health and safety were the top motivators for sending employees home to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, health and safety concerns will also impact the return to the office. Employees will be emboldened to push back on returning to the workplace until they feel it is safe to do so and seek proof that they are returning to a certified COVID-free workplace.

They will also “sick-shame” fellow employees who show up to work sneezing or coughing. Should you be at home or is that runny nose seasonal allergies? A November 2019 study by Accountemps reported that 90% of U.S. employees said that they go to work sick. The prime reason was “too much work to do.”

After COVID-19, employees will be empowered to WFH, so they do not have to use a sick day, the second-most-reported reason for showing up to work sick. Bosses and teammates will be ever more empowered to send a sick person home to work.

Failure to lunch: The cafeteria transformed

Food is a significant cultural marker for every organization. Leesman Index Research has shown that food and the corporate food outlets are key components of employee satisfaction. However, COVID-19 safety protocols are about to change all that. Imagine the queue for the morning coffee with everyone standing 6 feet apart. Enter the ubiquitous use of apps to order all food and drink inside the workplace. Uncertain of the office refrigerator or the coffee maker, others will dig out that old insulated lunch box, along with an insulated mug.

At least for now, food in the office or building café will be prepackaged, transactions will be cashless and breaks and lunch times will be staggered. Chicago-based Farmer’s Fridge off-hours transactions are up 300% as employees seek high-quality foods from a touchless vending machine.

Asynchronous collaboration

There will definitely not be doughnuts at the next in-office meeting. But the real question is whether there will be any people at the next in-office meeting. New tech-enabled employees will increasingly choose asynchronous collaboration, which enables them to work together but not be together. And when they do meet, gatherings by video will be commonplace.

Large conference rooms in the post COVID-19 workplace will be replaced by additional smaller meeting rooms of various sizes as well as more open meeting spaces that can flex in occupancy. The signature client conference room adjacent to reception may be on its way out, replaced by powerful software and smaller flexible meeting spaces.

Don’t drop the ball — a new way to bond

While the March Madness office pool didn’t happen this year, the culture of office sports will survive in the workplace. Sports brings camaraderie to the workplace, with 54% of employees agreeing that sports-related activities are good for office moral, as reported by a recent Kimble poll.

The team bonding that is happening right now via Zoom will continue as we return to the office. Workplace sports such as the virtual Friday night poker game or the step challenge will enable employees to embrace competition and build a winning culture, while keeping employees safe and being inclusive for those who are working remotely.

Cynthia Milota is director of workplace strategy at Ware Malcomb, an integrated design services company for corporate real estate based in Irvine, Calif.

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