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What will office life be like when you return to work?

From vaccine requirements to plexiglass dividers, your workplace might look different as the pandemic begins to recede. Here’s what you need to know.

The end of the pandemic could be in sight now that over 74 million people and counting are fully vaccinated in the U.S. (as of press time), and some states are slated to open vaccine eligibility up to anyone 16 or older. But the transition back to “normal life” might feel anything but normal after we’ve been in lockdown and social distancing for more than a year.

If you’ve been working remotely for months, you could be apprehensive about returning to work. After all, there are a lot of unknowns. Can employers require tests? What safety precautions will employers take? Is it possible to continue working remotely if that’s your preference?

Here are things to expect as offices start reopening:

In this article:

1. Employers may perform health screenings

According to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers can choose to do a health screening when you come into work. This might include asking if you have a cough and taking your temperature at the office. People with symptoms may be sent home.

Depending on where you work, a COVID-19 test may also be required. If you ever have a question about what can be required and what questions your job is or is not allowed to ask about your health, the EEOC outlines guidelines employers need to follow.

2. COVID-19 vaccines could be required (with some exceptions)

As countries consider vaccine passports and sports arenas add special seating areas for vaccinated fans, you might be wondering if vaccinations may become a condition for working in an office. The answer: It depends.

“Reaching any conclusion regarding COVID and employment rules is difficult because of the rapidly changing nature of the legal and business environment,” said Robert C. Bird, professor of business law at the University of Connecticut. “That said, employers can generally require their employees to be vaccinated.”

There are exceptions to the rule, though. If you can’t get vaccinated because of a disability or health issue, you may be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The company may have to offer you an accommodation, such as letting you work remotely if your inability to get vaccinated puts others at risk.

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3. Social distancing measures are likely not going anywhere

Sadly, welcome back hugs and handshakes may have to wait. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines still recommend maintaining a six-foot distance from others. That means virtual meetings could stick around for a while, and less time may be spent in the conference room or chatting around the water cooler — at least for now. Your employers may create a post COVID office design that spreads desks out to promote social distancing.

Employers are able to require that you wear a mask unless you can’t wear one for a health or religious reason. Masks are intended to protect people around you from your respiratory droplets if you cough or sneeze. Plus, depending on what mask you wear, it could reduce the risk of you catching the virus if you come in contact with someone at the office who has it.

4. Offices may look unrecognizable

To keep employees and customers six feet away from each other in a shared space, companies may move office furniture, waiting rooms, cafeterias, and other public spaces. You might find a few hand sanitizer stations that you’ve never seen before have popped up, and breakroom coffee machines or water coolers could no longer be available for use in a post COVID workspace.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has put out guidance to help employers and workers mitigate risk when working in a shared space. It recommends that employers take measures, such as providing face coverings, limiting people in areas, using social distancing tape or markers, delivering services remotely where possible, and checking air ventilation systems.

If you have concerns about what your employer is doing to protect employees and customers, ask about safety plans in your workspace. “Most employers have a no-retaliation policy as part of a code of conduct or general employment communication policies for voicing concerns,” said Anne Huffman, human resources director for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB). This means you should not face repercussions for bringing up concerns.

If you want to escalate an issue, complaints about safety hazards can be filed with OSHA. “I expect OSHA will have a more proactive approach in the coming year that will include site audits and [investigation of] employee concerns,” said Huffman.

5. People at risk of catching a severe case of COVID-19 may be able to request workplace accommodation

People with pre-existing health conditions may be at a higher risk of getting a severe case of COVID-19. If you fall into a high-risk category, you may be able to request an additional accommodation or workplace adjustment that lessens your contact with others.

This could mean continuing to work from home, working in a separate office, or putting up barriers, such as plexiglass, between you and coworkers or customers to protect yourself. Consider discussing concerns you might have about going back to work with your employer.

6. Employers may finally be open to permanent remote work

Aside from safety-related changes, the way we work might still look a lot different than it did just a year ago. According to Bird, it won’t be business as usual now that both employees and employers have experienced remote working and the benefits. “Employees will likely expect more workplace flexibility regarding remote working because we now have hard evidence that remote working can be successful,” Bird says.

If you enjoy skipping the commute and working a few days a week in pajamas, remote work is something you could negotiate like any other job-related benefit. And if you’re not able to come to an agreement on teleworking with your current employer, you have options.

Take a scroll through Indeed or LinkedIn and you’ll see that many companies looking for new talent are open to remote workers. “For the foreseeable future, I expect employers to highlight their working arrangement flexibility as a recruitment tool,” said Huffman. Who knows? Your life after the pandemic could involve a new position with more ongoing work flexibility.

7. Taking sick days may now be encouraged—not frowned-upon

A 2019 study from Robert Half found that 90% of workers have come to the office with cold or flu symptoms, but that trend could be changing. In the past, someone who came to work while sick was viewed as a diligent employee concerned about their work, according to Huffman.

“Today, that view may be of someone lacking empathy for their colleagues.” The pandemic has shown us that taking a risk and bringing a virus to the workplace affects others — and could even be fatal to people you come in contact with.

8. Travel budgets may be tighter

If you used to travel a lot for business, change might be on the horizon in that area as well. “Business travel will resume, but I expect employers to be more cost conscious about travel expenses and this includes conferences,” said Huffman. According to Huffman, conferences will likely have remote components, so you might be able to attend from afar.

Overall, we should expect to continue seeing the use of video calls such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or Google Meet since it’s now been so widely adopted. “Employees across the generational spectrum have gotten more comfortable with the technology,” said Huffman. The pandemic has forced many to learn innovative ways to collaborate from different locations.

The bottom line

Although the pandemic isn’t completely behind us, many employers are coming up with plans to transition back to the office. What changes are made to offices and policies can vary from one company or industry to the next.

If you’re interested in continuing remote work full-time or part-time, showing evidence of productivity and work achievements during the pandemic while working at home could help you make your case. If you will be heading back into the office, the best way to stay in the know about safety policies is by communicating with your employer.

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About Taylor Medine

Taylor Medine is a personal finance writer who's covered all things money for the last six years. Her work has appeared on Business InsiderCredit KarmaMSNUSA Today, and much more.

Read more by Taylor Medine

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Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.

Haven Life is not authorized to give tax, legal or investment advice. This material is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or investment advice. Individuals are encouraged to seed advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

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