COVID cancelled the water cooler. It has also given us the opportunity to rethink our office spaces and furniture—as well as the way we work.
That’s long overdue, says Arjun Kaicker, co-head of analytics and insights at Zaha Hadid Architects. Pre-pandemic, a lot of offices facilitated the spread of the seasonal flu and other illnesses. “Office design can dramatically affect the health and well-being of workers, both positively and negatively,” he says.
The pandemic presents an opportunity to create post-COVID-19 work styles and offices that are dramatically better than their predecessors, Kaicker adds. “Now is the time to make sure that our offices take into account health and wellness on every level, often through small changes that can also improve performance and ultimately the bottom line,” he says.
The pandemic has been a wake-up call for the business world. “We’ve got a lot of clients who are asking us, ‘What do we need to change now before it’s too late?’” Kaicker says.
For many, working from home will continue. In fact, one in four CFOs plan to shift at least 20% of their on-site employees to remote work permanently, according to a Gartner survey. But the majority of workers will most likely return to the office at some point. Only 37% of U.S. jobs can be performed entirely at home, according to a 2020 report by the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago, which examined survey data for approximately 1,000 occupations.
“The question is, what office are you returning back to?” asks Erica Volini, global human capital leader for Deloitte.
How will we connect, be productive and push innovation in the changed workplace? Here are the lasting trends that signal an evolving way of working.
Workspaces will become more personalized.
With the use and occupancy of common spaces and cafeterias being reevaluated, workers will have to find different ways to connect and collaborate.
“We’ll see less of those spaces where people can come together physically, but it has to be replaced in some way,” Volini says, “and it can’t just be Zoom. We have to replace it with other practices that are put in place to give people a sense of that connection.”
Team members must feel safe in a time of heightened anxiety. One solution is to have them signal their openness to interacting, Volini suggests. “Individuals could wear bracelets of different colors—red, yellow and green—that indicate how socially distant they want to be from folks.”
Because people working from home have become accustomed to controlling their environment, they may ask for more control in the office, Kaicker adds. “Desk selection could become more personalized, possibly controlled by an app that helps you pick the desk location, maybe because it is quieter, has better daylight or is closer to meeting space,” he says.
In addition, where the climate allows, look for the creation of more outdoor spaces adjacent to office buildings—or even on their rooftops, Kaicker says. This gives employees used to working from home an escape.
Most staff will spend the majority of time indoors, though. “Spaces that bring the outdoors in can be some of the best for productivity, help reduce the spread of disease and save money,” he adds.
Increasing natural light, for example, can reduce energy consumption and can help improve productivity and overall health, according to Kaicker. He also recommends using openable windows and natural ventilation whenever possible.
Managers will collect data on their teams’ productivity and well-being.
What happens with employees who continue to work remotely? Expect companies to start collecting more data via employee surveys to monitor their staff’s capacity and productivity. Businesses may also consider providing discounts on home office furniture or products or a stipend for workers to augment their home offices.
“We’re going to really have to see some advanced data and analytics to measure and monitor how the workforce is actually doing,” Volini says. Team leaders should monitor levels of productivity as well as degrees of loneliness and mental stress, which are at an all-time high, she adds. “Are you able to get your work done? How does your team work on a day-to-day basis?”
The way we measure productivity should change, says Erica Dhawan, founder and CEO of Cotential, a business transformation consultancy. “It’s difficult to manage productivity from afar. Measure success in results, not hours,” she suggests. Understand that when employees work from home, the lines between work and life will inevitably blur. “Virtual teams have more success when team members are given some latitude with how they reach the desired results,” explains Dhawan, co-author of Get Big Things Done and host of the Masters of Leadership podcast.
Parents are getting their work done around homeschooling and childcare. People are dealing with loved ones getting sick. This means they might have to take long breaks during the day and return to work in the evening. “The 9-to-5 model is broken, and it’s not going to work when we’re not at the office,” Dhawan says. “Don’t expect your team to be at your beck and call all day long.”
Prioritize tasks by listing them in order of importance and tied to clear deadlines. Avoid vague timelines like, “I need this ASAP.” Instead say, “I need this in two hours” or, “End of week is good.”
Virtual teams have more success when team members are given some latitude.
— Erica Dhawan
Author Get Things Done
Collaboration will become more intentional.
The primary role of a workplace in many organizations has been to encourage collaboration and interaction, Kaicker says. This is now a challenge as staff may not be able to congregate in common areas, hold large meetings in conference rooms or wander over to someone’s desk to chat.
“As opposed to simply attempting to create as much interaction between as many people as possible, organizations and designers will need a more focused approach to encouraging meaningful collaboration, both planned and unplanned, within and between teams at specific places and times,” Kaicker says.
Common areas will still be important, but staff may need to book them in advance. Face to-face meetings could become more focused, structured and shorter, with further discussion carried on virtually. “Collaboration will no longer be taken for granted and will become a more significant event, which may result in each collaboration becoming more meaningful,” Kaicker says.
Brainstorms once meant coming together in a conference room and shouting ideas that get written on a whiteboard. But that setup might not translate to dispersed teams—and it wasn’t ideal, anyway. Introverts might not be as likely to share their thoughts, a suggestion from a leader tends to hold more weight, and people often run with one of the first suggested ideas.
Enter brainwriting. Have employees work alone at first, jotting their ideas down before the actual brainstorming meeting. Push them to generate at least 10—and let them know that so-called wild ideas are OK. At the meeting, whether in person or virtually, the moderator can present all submitted ideas, and the team can then provide input. One solution might involve combining and improving upon various suggestions. If you’re using a tool like Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts or Zoom, consider sharing your screen and updating communal documents in real time to facilitate collaboration.
Employees should be trained to handle constant change.
“Now is the time to invest in reskilling practices that build resilience for the uncertain future,” Volini says. “In the past, we saw a focus on learning specific skills and programs, but with the rapid development of technology and turbulence of the world around us, organizations should focus their energy into building capabilities such as critical thinking, emotional intelligence and collaboration.”
One way to accomplish this is to create internal apprenticeships where individuals can learn these capabilities on the job while still providing value to the organization.
Companies could also invest in e-courses for employees, such as through LinkedIn Learning, Coursera or EdCast. “This is the perfect opportunity to bring in content developed externally to expand the perspectives for workers beyond what the organization itself knows,” Volini says. “There are many vendors in the marketplace whose content is easily accessible and can be integrated into broader capability programs and learning systems.”
The lasting changes to the way we work could benefit from increased intergenerational collaboration, Dhawan says.
During the pandemic, “older executives have had to show vulnerability in asking younger members of their teams for guidance on technology, Zoom capabilities and navigating workplace conversation on the social issues of our times,” Dhawan explains. “On the other hand, younger members of the workforce have had to rely on older executives for old-school relationship building.” For example, one of her clients hosted a How to Talk on the Phone meeting for his youngest workers, self-described phone-phobics. “In many ways, if we’re thoughtful about this cross-generational knowledge sharing, it opens up a whole world of connectional intelligence that is often ignored,” she says.
An adaptable workforce can truly benefit companies in the face of major disruptions. As the saying goes, the only constant in life is change.
Businesses are putting the health and safety of their employees and customers first.
Companies have implemented or are planning to implement:
- Reduced operating hours to facilitate cleaning: 51%
- Sanitization breaks for employees during the day: 51%
- Antiviral or disinfectant fogging in high-occupancy environments: 49%
- New surface materials that are antiviral: 41%
- Air filtration/ventilation system changes: 30%
Image by Miragec/Getty Images