As Malta continues to relax the safety measures that have dominated our public and working spaces, the question of office life in a post-coronavirus world looms large.

The pandemic has altered daily rhythms on a global level, with massive numbers of employees acclimatising to working from home. The global spread of COVID-19 has led many companies to shift their focus onto remote work, thereby maintaining productivity and business continuity.

Something of a revolution in the world of work is already underway, as employees learn to collaborate and communicate in virtual spaces.

Proof of the deep-rooted transformation being promised by the change from physical to virtual working environments was highlighted in a recent global survey, conducted by research company Gartner.

In feedback from over 300 business leaders, 74 per cent stated that their on-site workforce would be permanently replaced by remote positions in the aftermath of COVID-19.

It is clear that research about whether similar trends will take effect in Malta, and what impact such changes will have on Malta’s key industries, is urgently required.

While the biggest factor driving this permanent change may be the cost-saving benefits for companies of work from home, this must be paralleled with an understanding of employees’ views about how and to what extent they want to return to the office.

Although a focus on office health and well-being is essential, the lack of hard facts about the virus and its long-term effects makes such reassurances difficult.

Some of the changes being implemented include staggered workstations, reducing corridor traffic by introducing one-way halls, protective barriers and potentially limiting office interaction to group activities. Whether or not these will provide a more healthy alternative to home-based work is difficult to say.

A reluctance to abandon traditional working environments is being expressed by some leaders in the international business community. Describing his unease with too strong a reliance on remote work, CEO of Microsoft Satya Nadella has highlighted risks of deleterious consequences for social interaction and employee mental health should virtual meetings completely replace in-person contact.

Nadella and his supporters are asking some important questions about what burnout would look like in a virtual space, and how community-building can take place outside of embodied channels.

It also stands to reason that restructuring the home as a working space will have far-reaching implications for the ways in which we inhabit our living spaces.

Without the physical distance between ourselves and our offices, could the home become a new kind of cubicle? And if so, where will employees find the safe and restful space they need to maintain their mental and emotional well-being?

Some companies are introducing remote work policies that ensure a strong workplace culture and efficient operations both in and out of the office. Such a hybrid strategy may provide an attractive interim option, as the world grapples with the fallout of COVID-19.

Whatever the way forward, employers will be expected to apply what has been learnt during this challenging process. Checking on employee satisfaction, updating remote work policies and more deeply integrating technology into daily working life all seem to be clear directions for further scrutiny.

Corporate social responsibility in the bigger picture is an element at play too: remote working reduces traffic and air pollution and may help men and woman share house duties and career responsibilities more equitably.

As global society shifts, and as it comes to terms with living with the virus and its aftermath, the impact these months of lockdown are having on the world of work cannot be overstated or ignored.

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