What does the post-COVID return to work really look like?
With the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions starting to relax in many countries and states, there is a renewed focus on getting ‘back to normal’. For many, this signifies a return to the office – but it’s not as simple as picking up old habits. Preparing for a safe and efficient way to bring employees back to the workplace is a complex topic, and there are a lot of conflicting opinions out there. So let’s take a look at what we should be expecting for the return to work…and what not to.
Myth #1 – Everyone will be back in the office
It’s true that the expectations for most businesses are to get as many employees back in the office as they can while maintaining everyone’s safety. However, we’re seeing that some companies are taking a different approach to this. A new study by the SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) shows that while 53% of U.S. workplaces plan to reopen by July 15, at least 45% have yet to set a return to work date.
We can assume that the slow ramp up to reopening is due to ensuring health and safety standards are in place, so that employees’ wellbeing is respected as a priority. But we also know that for many businesses there’s no rush due to remote work being a resounding success.
With remote work proving you don’t have to be in the office to be productive, the same SHRM study found that 68% of organizations are very likely to adopt broader work from home policies for all workers going forward. And we’re already seeing that many of the Silicon Valley tech companies have given employees the flexibility to choose throughout the rest of 2020.
And for some, the emphasis has been placed even higher. In May, Twitter announced that their employees can continue to work remotely indefinitely, while Shopify stated they are now a ‘digital by default’ company.
Myth #2 – Employees are totally ok with going back to normal
Unfortunately, this statement doesn’t reflect the majority view. In a recent survey by The Wellbeing Lab, 78% of workers reported “not feeling positive” about the prospect of returning to the office as pandemic restrictions ease.
It’s not surprising given the current uncertainty still surrounding COVID-19, and the fact that many have finally gotten used to this new approach of working. But at the same time, people are equally not ok with staying isolated from their colleagues. The longer people work from home, the more likely they are to report issues with sadness and fatigue.
And we know that to build trust in a team, you need proximity to others in order to be attuned to each other’s thoughts and feelings. So whilst the next few months may be an adjustment period, we do expect to see the sentiment of being back in the office change to one of positivity, as teams rediscover the benefits of non-verbal (and non-virtual) communication.
Myth #3 – Face-to-face interaction in the office will never be the same
Until we have a vaccine for COVID-19, physical distancing and safeguarding employees’ health will need to take precedence in how we look at interaction in the workplace. With 86% of organizations telling SHRM they are implementing or considering the required use of PPE (e.g., masks, gloves, etc.), and social distancing requiring redirected traffic, desk chats won’t be the same for a while.
This is perhaps the largest workplace change employees will need to adjust to, with office designs for the last ten years championing open floor plans and huddle rooms to drive those organic conversations and collaboration. But it’s not to say we can’t interact with people, and that we should see this as a reason to stay home from the office. We’re social creatures and we can still have connections with others, just at a socially distanced length.
We may even find new ways to interact, using technology as an enabler rather than the end tool. Platforms like Amazon Alexa for Business, for example, could become a new interface and remove the need for physically pushing a button. As Bret Kinsella, founder & CEO of the voice technology publication Voicebot.ai, explained, “There is voice tech in warehouses today but very little in office settings. That will absolutely change.” So watch this space!
Myth #4 – The office is irrelevant
It’s tempting to make this bold statement – after all, haven’t so many still managed to deliver results from our homes? And shouldn’t we be grateful for the time and money saved from not having to commute or keep our brain going with overpriced takeaway coffees?
From a business perspective, real estate and maintenance of the workplace is expensive, so the future of your office is definitely up for discussion. But it cannot just disappear. Physical workplaces offer intrinsic value to employees that unfortunately virtual doesn’t replace. People enjoy having a boundary between work and home, and seeing others (even from afar) can remind us we’re a team and in this together.
So if we need the office, but know its purpose is likely to be fluid throughout 2020, how do we make it work? Most research points to improving the perception of wellbeing in the office, and reconfiguring existing setups to facilitate collaboration. In other words – create a socially distanced huddle room (as illustrated below by Studio Blitz).
Having a place to go gives employees a greater sense of time demarcation, reducing the disorientation that so many are reporting based on being isolated at home. And by having areas to meet and collaborate, you avoid the challenges that arise from video conferencing (such as struggles to get in sync and fully read non-verbal signals), and can stimulate ideation whilst still from a distance.
Cushman & Wakefield have already started to reimagine office design, with its ‘6 feet’ office built with cues to maintain distance in a way that removes the anxieties that come with alarming signs and stickers on the floor. Watch this space to see how office design continues to reimagine the workplace!
So… are you ready for the return to work?
It can be scary to see your workplace and daily routine change, but the stats show that with a flexible mindset we can find positivity from the pandemic and take the lessons learned to make the workplace a better environment for productivity.
If you or your business are still at the stage of working out how to do this, Konica Minolta has a comprehensive, end-to-end return to work solution to help you stay secure and compliant. Find out more about the key essentials to consider at rethinkfutureofwork.com.