For many people, the past year has been spent hunkered down at home, chatting with colleagues over the internet and checking in with bosses over Zoom, often while wrangling children or pets in the background.
In some ways, it was a disaster. In others, it unexpectedly worked. As businesses reopen around the world, many employees who work in an office are beginning to wonder if all the flexibility they've gotten used to will suddenly be whisked away. But experts say companies are aware that our relationship with work has shifted, and that they need to implement policies and plans to make the transition back into the office (if we go back to the office) easier.
There's been a lot of speculation about what that may mean, but here are a few ways experts say you can expect your workplace to be different in "the new normal."
1. Yes, more flexibility and remote work
More remote work may be in our future because companies were forced to invest in making that possible during the pandemic. Plus, employees are just used to it now.
"People's behavior and habits have changed," said David Johnson, a principal analyst at Forrester who focuses on employee experience and workplace behavior. "The hardest part about working remotely for most people was getting used to not having face-to-face contact and having to relate to people through technology like Zoom and Teams. Once they found their feet, now it's muscle memory."
But while some companies are ditching office space entirely, most probably won't go that far. Johnson and other experts expect most companies to maintain some brick-and-mortar office space and simply be more open to telecommuting and flexible schedules in the future.
The way society views at-home workers will shift, too.
"(In the past), flexible situations were not always looked at positively," said Amy Quarton, an associate instructor for the online organizational leadership program at Maryville University in St. Louis. "Individuals who take advantage of telecommuting or flexible hours were sometimes perceived as lazier or seen as not as good of an employee, not as high of a performer."
Now that more people have experienced remote work, those perceptions will start to change. But there will be hurdles, too: The technology will continue to adapt and companies will have to create more structure around telecommuting. Leaders will have to make sure remote employees feel supported and engaged, and that they're considered for promotions in the same way in-person employees are, Johnson said.
Quarton has other concerns — mainly, the tension that could build between workers who never get a chance to enjoy flexible schedules and those who do. She thinks that non-office workplaces — think supermarkets, factories and retail stores — will have to get creative to make sure that their employees see flexibility benefits, too.
2. Grocery stipend, anyone?
Lorna Borenstein, the founder and CEO of Grokker, a network of well-being videos for employees, expects more companies to start offering what she calls "modern perks."
"That's everything from subsidizing child care to even providing grocery delivery stipends," she said.
She pointed to a report her company did showing that employees are more stressed than ever, and said that companies are looking for ways to alleviate that stress. With more people working from home, that can mean perks such as cleaning services, grocery deliveries and utility reimbursements.
"It takes more time now to just get the normal stuff done," she said. "So companies are thinking, 'What can I do that is actually going to make your life easier?'"
It's not only white-collar workers who will see these benefits. Borenstein said she's heard of companies like Domino's Pizza and DoorDash also finding creative ways to make sure their employees feel supported and appreciated.
3. Fewer meetings and less Zoom fatigue
At the beginning of the pandemic, many employees who previously worked in offices found themselves in one Zoom meeting after another.
Eventually, Zoom fatigue kicked in and the back-to-back meetings made it difficult to get anything else done. People became very aware of "the psychological toll of meetings," Johnson said.
"More executives, more managers know what that feels like now," he said. "There will be more awareness of the cost of meetings, and recognizing that people are going to burn out if they're just on calls every day, all day."
From a logistical standpoint, more people being in the office in person will also help cut down on meetings, since they'll be able to have unscheduled conversations face to face.
4. More casual dress codes
The business world had already been heading in a more casual direction in terms of workwear, but the COVID-19 pandemic surely sped things up.
Employees shouldn't expect to show up in sweatpants on their first day back at the office, but it's reasonable to expect that their bosses will be a little more lenient when it comes to dress codes.
"For a year and a half, we've all been living our lives this way," Quarton said. "And it's difficult to make any human being change once you get used to it. Who wants to put on a suit?"
5. Less work travel ... at least for now
It's probably no surprise that people who used to travel a lot for business won't be doing as much as the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Quarton doesn't believe it will be like that forever. She doesn't see work conferences, for example, going virtual in the long run.
"The motive behind those big events is to actually get people together face to face," she said. "Sitting next to one another, laughing, exchanging jokes, having drinks. Sharing meals together is one of the best ways to increase group cohesion."
She said that when concerts and large events start to happen again, she expects to see in-person conferences, too. That said, in the future, there will probably always be a Zoom option for people who can't attend in person.
6. More transparency about our home lives
Gone are the days employees have to pretend that work is their sole focus and that they don't have needy kids or ailing parents at home, for example.
"I never spoke about my child at work — and now, I almost have to," Quarton said, adding that her child contracted COVID-19 during the pandemic.
Borenstein, who wrote a book about the need for businesses to care about their employees, "It's Personal: The Business Case for Caring," recalled behaving similarly before she was her own boss.
Having a life, even if it's messy, doesn't prevent you from being committed and getting your work done with quality.
"When my kids were younger, I kind of wanted to pretend they didn't exist," she said. "That undermined my credibility. And I think that has actually changed permanently — where, if there is a need to do something for a child, or if you're taking care of older parents and you have to take off, that is no longer going to label you as a slacker or someone who's not serious. Having a life, even if it's messy, doesn't prevent you from being committed and getting your work done with quality."
There have been more than 30 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. alone. The vastness of the pandemic makes it impossible for workplaces to ignore the effect that has on employees, and that's a positive change that will carry into the future.
The nature of remote work also makes it hard to ignore an employee's personal life in a more literal sense.
"We are seeing into people's homes now, which we never saw before," Johnson said. "That's a very personal, intimate thing. I think there's more tolerance and acceptance. And I'm optimistic that will lead to more familiarity and comfort with just being human in the workplace."