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From 'Hello' To 'Can You Hear Me?': How The Coronavirus Could Change Office Culture04:35
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Checking up on devices. (Zan/Unsplash)
Checking up on devices. (Zan/Unsplash)

By now, thousands of Massachusetts workers are settling into a strange new routine: instead of going into the office every day, an unprecedented number of professionals are working from home.

Efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus by closing many businesses have thrust hourly workers into economic limbo. But those who are fortunate enough to have jobs that can be conducted remotely are adjusting to virtual workplaces, where the chat window has replaced the proverbial water cooler, and yelling “Can you hear me?” at a static-garbled image of your coworkers on a screen has replaced “Hello,” “Hi,” and “How’s it going?”

For many, the perks of this extended remote work period include shorter commutes, more time to exercise, cook and sleep, and lots of family time. For those same individuals, the burdens may include cabin fever, spontaneous fridge raids and ... lots of family time.

At some point — one hopes — life will return to some version of "normal," and these former office-dwellers will have the choice to return from whence they came. But when they do, the very culture of office work may have changed in some significant ways.

"I never actually thought I would witness this in my lifetime," says Tsedal Neeley, a professor at Harvard Business School who's written about how global companies use technology to grow.

It's one thing for a company to outsource part of its operation to a remote workforce. It's another for the whole company to go remote. Figuring out how to communicate, how to make decisions as a group, and how to maintain relationships between coworkers are some of the biggest challenges confronting organizations today.

"Leaders must lead differently, individuals must work differently, and work and life get blurred," Neeley says.

To try and maintain a sense of cohesion, the small staff at Climate Xchange, an environmental advocacy organization, have gone beyond using video conferencing for meetings, says Tim Cronin, the nonprofit's policy manager. They have also tried leaving the feed running for hours as a way to maintain a sense of being in the same room.

"You work with people all the time, so you wouldn't think the norms would be that different but they definitely are in some strange ways," says Cronin, who typically commutes to Boston but has been working at home in Weymouth for the past couple of weeks. The other day, his team had a lunch gathering over Zoom, which he described as "weird," at least for him.

"I had my lunch, but I kind of left it on the side, because I’m not going to have everyone watch me eating," he says.

Of course, learning new business etiquette is only the start. Working from home during a public health crisis is forcing many people to juggle their personal and professional lives in a whole new way.

Claudia Mattison, who works for an engineering firm called dbHMS, has a toddler and is also several months pregnant.

"My biggest concern is keeping our son from driving us crazy," says Mattison, who usually works in Porter Square but lives in Arlington. Plus, she says, "I get stir crazy being cooped up at home."

With workers facing all these challenges in addition to their normal jobs, productivity will probably decline for a bit, says Neeley. But over time, she says people will figure out how to work effectively at home.

"I think the impact of this mass, mass, mass working from home experiment is going to be that we will all develop the skills that are going to be very important in the digital era," she says.

And because of that, the idea that the traditional office-centered work day is the ideal way to run an organization may evolve for the better, according to Erin Kelly, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of the book "Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do about It."

"In the short term, shifting to extensive work at home is going to feel like a jolt," Kelly says. "But there is the possibility that in the longer term, this crisis may push to help us normalize working from home and encourage us to update company policies and public policies like paid sick leave."

Until we get to that point though, Kelly recommends that managers and employees have discussions about how to conduct remote work in a way that avoids burnout.

"There's a there's a risk that we'll always be connected, that we won't turn off, that we won't unplug," Kelly says.

This segment aired on March 25, 2020.

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Adrian Ma is a reporter for WBUR's Bostonomix team.

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