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Column: We may return to workplaces, but COVID is leaving a permanent mark on how we do business
Shannon Casas high res
Shannon Casas

My great-grandfathers on my mom’s side were farmers, according to the 1940 census. One was born in 1892 and the other in 1905. On the other side, they weren’t farmers, but they weren’t too far removed from it either.

It’s hard to imagine a society in which most people have their own plot of land and farm it —  though at the beginning of COVID-19, the thought did cross my mind as the end of the world appeared near.

Our workforce has made such huge turnabouts, it’s hard to fathom.

The industrial revolution. Women entering the workforce during World War II. The digital revolution.

The workplace is vastly different than it was just a few decades ago.

And this past year likely sparked another long-lasting transformation.

Much of America’s white-collar workforce packed up in the spring and headed to home offices. We didn’t know how long it would last, but a year later, many are still working from home most of the time, myself included.

They’ve carved out home offices, taken walks around their neighborhood on breaks and grabbed lunch from their own fridge. The flexibility of working from home has been a huge perk for many. 

America is now looking toward a post-COVID world, and at least some employers are talking about a return to the office.

Will employees willingly give up that flexibility to return to offices? Will they return wearing the sweatpants and T-shirt attire of their home office? 

Will they return if their dedicated workspace is gone, replaced with a “hot desk” — an impersonal flat surface with an outlet for a laptop? It may get the job done, but no better than a coffee shop — just less ambience and fewer stares from annoyed baristas.

Already, some industries are desperate for workers. As we detailed in a recent article, restaurants are having a tough time hiring. The quick reaction is to blame free-flowing unemployment checks. That’s surely a factor, but I don’t think it’s the only one.

We’re in a community blessed and cursed with one of the lowest unemployment rates around at 2.6% in March, which is even lower than it was before the pandemic.

It’s a job seekers market, and whether it’s bad hours, low pay or angry bosses and customers — job seekers aren’t choosing the restaurant industry. 

That industry did make huge adjustments to serve customers in the COVID world, though, switching to primarily takeout and delivery and beefing up online ordering options. 

If staffing shortages continue as crowds return to dining out, it seems the next revolution may be replacing humans with computerized options. Scan the QR code, choose your meal on your phone, maybe a server brings it to you and refills your drink. There are some restaurants that already operate this way. Or who knows, maybe Rosie the robot will be serving your table soon.

Online shopping, already on an upward trend, became the only way to do business for a little while. Trucks coming up and down residential streets delivering everything from socks to furniture provide quite a few jobs. Moving all those goods across the globe may not require as many people as it does now as driverless vehicle technology advances. 

We may already be entering the post-COVID world, but the imprint of this virus won’t fade. And it’s quickening the pace of the latest digital revolutions.  

The available jobs and the in-demand jobs will shift, along with how we perform them.

Meanwhile in The Times newsroom, we’re pretty adept at working from home. We also miss newsroom conversations. 

The future may not be as flexible as the stretchy yoga pants of the home office, but it will have to have some give. Some collaborative face time, some focused individual work. Some time at our cubicles and some at home. And of course, there’s some time in the community. Though we’ve been here all along — getting out to cover the latest COVID developments at the hospital, responding to breaking news scenes or just meeting up for interviews — we’re excited to see North Georgia really coming back alive. Events are lined up, from galas to festivals. Developments are taking shape. 

And though some have tried, there’s no robot replacement for reporters connected to their community.

Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a North Hall resident. 

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