The COVID-19 pandemic has already shaped the office of the future. As organizations have become less hierarchical and more collaborative, more employees have worked in informal, smaller office spaces. The coronavirus has temporarily disrupted all that close contact, and more people than ever are telecommuting.
An April 2020 Gallup Poll found that as American workers are increasingly doing their jobs from home, “they are warming up to the experience.” Likewise, employers have been willing to give their workers flex time. Flex options have grown from 39% to 57%. Also, 62% of employed Americans currently say they have worked from home, “a number that has doubled since the poll was first taken in mid-March 2020.
Growing Accustomed to the Home Office
Until there is a reliable coronavirus vaccination/treatment, Americans will have to get used to working from home. That arrangement won’t apply to every job, but most people can actually be productive working from home. The Gallup poll found that 60% of remote workers surveyed prefer that arrangement and would like to have the option after the health restrictions are lifted.
More employee surveillance is one disadvantage
According to this piece on vox.com, the move to remote work has “piqued some companies’ interest in surveillance tech for employees.” The worry is not just about productivity, but that “not having people in the office could lead to the leaking of sensitive information.”
Offices Are Here to Stay
Don’t worry, though. The office will never completely disappear. The entire world cannot work from home. Offices will be there, but they will likely look different. Open-spaced trading floors could disappear and be replaced by partitions and cubicles for health reasons.
However, all those office structural changes may be just temporary. One expert’s view: “There’s a flurry of activity, but it’s purely focused on tactical solutions. No one is willing to invest a significant sum on solutions that could be rendered ineffective [by our increased understanding of Covid-19, or a vaccine] in six-months’ time. What you will see is small, targeted hits – almost surgical interventions – that will provide employees with a sense of safety.”
Worker Recalls Must Focus on Reasonable Social Distancing
As companies plan to recall their workforce to the office, they need to provide an environment that will keep workers healthy, safe, and productive. Those environmental and physical changes could include wider corridors and one-way foot traffic, better air quality and filtration and hands-free elevator controls.
Other options include videoconferencing, even within the office, to avoid the personal contacts in a conference room. Then there is the likelihood that companies will have to designate someone to enforce social distancing. It is only human nature for people to socialize and congregate, the new normal may be tough to deal with (and enforce).
High-tech assists with “hands-off” operations
For organizations that can afford the so-called contactless office, communal buttons could be eliminated entirely. Employees could use their smartphones to call up an elevator or dispense a cup of coffee. They could equip conference rooms with voice-activated tech to control audio and visual equipment and lighting, for example. Toilets could be flushed with a simple hand wave and office kitchens and pantries could be replaced by a dedicated food dispenser.
The Future of the Office May Now Be at the Point of No Return
Of the over one-third of workers estimated to be working at home, many will not go back to the office. Gartner researchers found that nearly three-quarters of the surveyed organizations will shift some employees to remote work permanently. So, when the pandemic has passed, over 30% of the entire workforce will work at home, at least one or two days per week.
Remote workers have become more tech-savvy.
Necessity is the mother of invention as well as learning. Workers have had to climb the learning curve as they spend their day navigating communication apps with meetings and doing after-hours correspondence. Previously technophobic newcomers will likely adapt to their new workflows, and that tech will not go away—especially when people return to normal office operations and find new ways to leverage that technology.
Workplace software like video conferencing has added a new sense of purpose to work routines at home. Video conferencing and online chat tools like Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and others have substituted for personal contact necessitated by the coronavirus lockdown.
10 Steps to Returning to the Normal People-Populated Office
Amy Rosen and Mike Sayre, writing for WORKDESIGN Magazine highlight the need for redesigning office spaces to accommodate the post-coronavirus working world. The authors suggest that “spaces can be adapted to accommodate social distancing, but that only matters if people actually behave that way.” It only makes sense to use “a people-centric approach in planning the return of the office.”
The authors focus on three main objectives in preparing for the post-COVID-19 office:
1. Optimize the office experience, even though all the company’s people cannot be up close and personal. The authors emphasize the importance of delivering more than just a work experience. Those optimized experiences are nurtured as a part of the company culture of unity of purpose, and showing that people always come first. This will pay off in the future as things return to normal, and, inevitably, more people opt to work at home without feeling disconnected from the organization.
2. Have a return-to-office strategy that focuses on collaboration, performance, and employee wellbeing at its center. The authors suggest:
- surveying the staff to “identify key relationships and functions that most need a physical office”
- integrating return strategies with solid human resource management, information technology considerations, as well as facilities management
- decide whether coworking arrangements can be a stopgap or permanent supplement to the company’s working arrangements
3. Re-think attitudes and policies on remote working. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way most organizations imagined the future of work would be. This new era is an opportunity for a new mindset:
- Telework is not just a contingency or a perk but can be part of a strategy to blend and accommodate a new culture of remote workers.
- Look at the long-term benefits of maximizing physical and virtual work to support teams and projects. Integrate that approach into disaster recovery planning. The main benefits are new possibilities to hire talent, regardless of where they are.
The 10-point checklist for designing the post-COVID-19 office
Here are 10 things that need to be in place as workers resume their pre-pandemic office jobs:
1. Account for factors outside of the organization’s control.
There must be a mechanism in place to make decisions about how to respond to unforeseen and evolving factors like infrastructure and transportation. For example, large cities that depend on mass transportation may not be able to accommodate a resumption in passenger numbers. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, getting the commute back to normal could be the biggest hurdle in returning workers to the office.
2. Bring workers back in layered groups.
The big question is, who needs to be physically present in order to do their jobs well? Then, are there some roles or functions that must be physically present to support the latter? Finally, how will those representatives be selected?
Answering those questions will keep the organization operating while avoiding an uneven distribution of expertise. Taking into account that most office workers “will choose when to come back based on their own, rather than their employer’s preference,” the authors suggest beginning with the first 20 percent of people who self-select; i.e., who know they must be in the office to do their job properly.
The next step is to ramp up to 50 percent and eventually 70 percent “as government restrictions are eased and work practices are optimized.” Finally, the authors recommend “a rotation every few days rather than weekly.
3. Decide, prepare, and publish social-distancing policies and protocols.
The authors suggest coming up with policies “that provide flexibility and choice to employees while prioritizing wellness.” They can include guidelines on desk and cubicle arrangements “intended to reduce exposure.” Regulations on keeping desks clean as well as paying attention to public amenity use and common spaces must become enforceable policies, rather than just suggestions.
Likewise, remote working policies need to be formalized. The authors foresee that US workers will likely be subjected to mandatory telecommuting with specified days to report to the office. The authors warn that “it is essential that [workers] be able to do so without the stigma or penalty that is sometimes attached to remote work.”
Finally, proceed from the expectation that in the office constant cleaning will be necessary. Meet with maintenance staff to ensure that office spaces are cleaned appropriately. A written cleaning schedule/checklist will align expectations. Stay in touch with the landlord and maintain close coordination with maintenance personnel as work practices evolve.
4. Take advantage of more available space: “de-densify.”
Companies should “seek to de-densify spaces in ways that improve, rather than hinder flexibility and user experience.” This could be done by changing desk arrangements and keeping an empty seat between employees. Other steps may include placing one-way direction arrows in narrow corridors and restricting assembly areas in the office.
5. Do a site survey and assess office space preparedness.
Don’t look for definitive guidance, official or otherwise, regarding building operations for workers returning to the office. In the meantime, the best approach is to contact the landlord and track contamination dangers from the employee’s parking area to the desk—including elevators and common restrooms.
Review the landlord’s preparedness plan with a view towards applying solutions like antimicrobial filters, increased airflow in HVAC systems with continuous operation of ventilation systems in common spaces, and increased sanitation of ductwork with UV light or aerosol sprays.
6. Focus on restroom and storage pantry facilities.
Restrooms and storage pantries are high-traffic and shared facilities that need special attention. Restricting access to storage areas to designated persons and introducing spray disinfectant and adding lids to toilets are two ways to control the spread of COVID-19 contamination.
7. Rely on building technology for safer user experience and wellness.
As previously discussed, technology investments can improve building performance and keep people safe. For example, touchless surfaces, destination elevators, and smart lighting all minimize contact with shared surfaces.
8. Get ready for contact tracking strategies.
If an employee becomes ill, social data can be paired with building systems for tracking employee interactions. Likewise, building security systems, room booking apps, and other social tracking can be the basis of contact tracking to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
9. Be transparent and build trust.
Whatever strategies company leadership employs, according to the authors, the main factor in employee engagement is “the sense that one’s company cares for them.” The COVID-19 pandemic has already caused unfortunate job loss, reduced employment, and pay cuts. Engage in a “people-first approach” and share the plans. Demonstrate care and concerns and offer employee assistance programs that focus on personal and wellness issues.
10. Take advantage of long-term teleworking.
Teleworking, like rock ‘n roll, is here to stay. Workers will return to the office with new perspectives and an enlightened outlook on how to be effective in a distributed organization. While a significant proportion of employees may never work remotely, be aware that those who are not present don’t always receive the same level of engagement and information as those who do. Adjust the planning accordingly.
The office of the future, at least until there is an effective COVID-19 vaccine, will be a hybrid version of social distancing and more people working from home. Companies will in the short term need to focus on minimizing personal contact and preventing the spread of the coronavirus contaminants.
There are solid planning steps companies can take to bring their employees back to a safe and welcoming workplace. As in any disaster recovery plan, those steps must put the health and safety of people first. That people-first approach as offices migrate to a new normal of a significant portion of their workforce at home will have residual benefits in morale and company loyalty.
Related Articles & Podcast Episodes
- Blog Post: How 3 companies have managed the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Managing Uncertainty Episode #96: Crisis leadership in the time of Coronavirus
- Managing Uncertainty Episode #96: Returning to the office in the age of COVID-19
- Managing Uncertainty Episode #98: Social distancing while returning to the office
- Webinar: Crisis & Continuity Leadership in the time of Coronavirus
- Webinar: Leading your organization through a complex novel crisis – Lessons from the frontlines of COVID-19
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