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How Can We Get Back to the Physical Workplace?

7 minute read
David Roe avatar
While many workers are happy to work from home, many too want a return to the office, including managers. Here's why.

In the first half of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic created a sudden shift to work-from-home for millions of employees around the world, altering how people work, as well as, their expectations for the technology they rely on to do their jobs.

To assess the impact of that move Morrisville, NC-based Lenovo recently carried out a survey of 20,262 people working in 10 markets and to see whether large-scale remote working was feasible, and even acceptable for the majority of workers.

Changing Work Patterns

The recently released survey, titled Technology and the Evolving World of Work, showed that a majority of those surveyed (72%) confirmed a shift in their daily work dynamic in the last three months. Employees, it appeared to show, also feel more connected and more productive than ever before as they WFH.

However, it also shows financial, physical and emotional downsides for the global workforce. Over 72% of employees said that their work location has been impacted by COVID-19 — particularly among younger generations.

There was also a financial cost. With the pandemic bringing on such a dramatic shift to WFH, workers say they have had to make personal investments on tech when their employers have not. It showed that:

  • Seven-in-ten employees surveyed globally said they purchased new technology to navigate working remotely
  • Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed have had to fund their own tech upgrades partially or fully, making it less attractive than it might be otherwise.
  • US respondents say they have personally spent an average of $348 (USD) to upgrade or improve technology while working at home due to COVID-19 — roughly $70 higher than the global average ($273), and the second-highest among 10 markets surveyed.

However, there are plans, albeit early plans, to get many people back to the office. GM last week, for example, announced that while it would be next June before admin staff got back to the office, back to the office they will go. But post-COVID-19 offices are going to be different.

Related Article: Flexible Work Is the Future: Is Your Organization Ready?

Physical Office Post-COVID-19

A recent analysis of the British government’s view on the new workplace by health and safety consultants Arinite showed that:

  • Offices will be split into separate groups that go to the office on different days and cannot intermingle
  • With the 2 meter social distancing guidelines enforced in offices, many meeting rooms and office spaces will be too small to hold team meetings
  • Business to business meetings, whether they be with clients, suppliers etc, will stay online to minimize the chances of a COVID-19 outbreak affecting multiple offices.
  • Kitchen areas, cafes, and social areas with particularly high footfall will require regular disinfection and more sanitary products.
  • Lunch breaks may be staggered or these areas could be closed entirely, to reduce the chances of too many workers using the facilities and socializing at the same time.

New Working Dynamics

Whether teams shift back to physical workplaces or must readjust to a combination of remote and onsite workers, even with the same people, the transition can be like when new teams form. The group dynamic changes, Katherine King, founder of New York City-based Invisible Culture, said.

Citing Bruce Tuckman’s theory of group dynamics, she said teams go through necessary stages of “forming”, “storming”, “norming”, and “performing” when there is a need for adjustment. The rhythms of working from home have changed some of the social agility and cross-cultural understanding. And people who do work from home and must engage with their coworkers onsite have to assume a new kind of communication pattern. Healthy solutions to moving through the stages include:

  • Clearly defining roles and goals,
  • Allowing for evolving leadership,
  • Developing mutual trust
  • Making flexibility a friend.

Because new ways in managing the business may emerge, initial stages of conversations between the team can be task oriented, but should be building context around what is already working (and eventually, but not at first, what is not working) and adjust accordingly. Key to the process is defining everyone’s roles clearly. Some personalities are best at organizing, others at accomplishing tasks. “By clearly identifying and assigning roles that bring out the best in each individual, a business can navigate the transition effectively,” she said.

Phased Return To Work

Paul French is a HR professional and the founding director of Boston-based Intrinsic Search. He pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we work and indeed the future of work. It took a health crisis to force many businesses to allow remote work and this set up will be normalized going forward.

In various sectors such as manufacturing, healthcare, real estate, and other essential services, a return to the office will eventually be necessary. However, this will likely happen in phases rather than all at once. “I expect many companies to give employees a voluntary return date and allow them to slowly return to the office over a given period of time,” he said.

Learning Opportunities

Managers will also need to consider various factors when bringing employees back to the office. These factors include childcare needs, the impact of flexibility on company profits, any immediate plans to layoff employees, and of course a potential second wave of coronavirus cases.

About 35 to 40 percent of jobs in the US can be done from home. The forced remote working set up has also shown previously skeptical employers that productivity does not always suffer when employees work from home — in fact, remote employees work longer hours. It might be reasonable to assume that, going forward the number of people in the country that are going to work remotely will certainly be higher than it was pre-COVID 19. “Working from home will likely become a normalized part of our work life;” he added.

Problems Ahead

Before really looking at what is happening in the market, Amie Devero a consultant and coach to high-growth start-ups, said some of clients have already ended their leases and decided to stay virtual for the foreseeable future. However, many made those decisions in the early days of the pandemic, she said, and their position could change.

Since many organizations are in New York City and other high-density cities, they are still understandably shy about resuming office operations. Then, of course there are the well-known decisions to stay virtual by Facebook, Twitter and so forth — who are seen as trend-setters in the world. These companies have also found that working remotely is not the panacea of cost-saving and productivity that it seemed. Younger and more junior employees suffer. “For some, the experience is isolating and nerve-wracking; their office has moved into their home and they can't escape,” she said. “For others, they feel alienated from their organizations and have no idea how to ascend the company, grow themselves or get noticed. Then there are those who have flat mates or family and feel like they never get away.”

Moreover, losing office life means losing the primary access to social interaction, meeting other adults and having an eclectic life that includes lots of diverse types of people and experiences.

From the organization's standpoint it is not much better. Many organizations are struggling with creating genuine organization-wide cohesion. Their team members know those with whom they work but not those outside of their department or purview. Fiefdoms naturally emerge and despite the awkward virtual happy hours and trivia nights, there is little to bridge the gaps between junior and senior, engineer and sales, executive and interns. "The fat tail of this experiment will be significant retarding of junior employee development, succession planning, strategic cohesion and innovation,” she added.

Perhaps with the addition of augmented reality (a la Ready Player One), an all-remote life would work, but in 2020, our technology falls short of that experience. Until that time, most companies will discover for themselves that office life has tons of benefits.