The digital workplace is at a crossroads. After one year of the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines are becoming more and more available and lockdowns are being lifted on a daily basis. How will the return to the corporate office affect companies and employees and what practices or methodologies will influence the next phase of business? 

As businesses moved to a remote workforce, they had to adjust onboarding practices, meeting etiquette, learning initiatives, performance evaluations and promotions, and aspects of office life that were taken for granted, such as watercooler culture. It was a year of Zoom meetings, long-distance learning, live streaming and remote get togethers. Some businesses closed their doors for good, employees were let go permanently and people held on through unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, or not at all.  

As President Biden directs states to provide vaccines for every adult that wants one by May 1, it appears that things may start getting back to somewhat normal by the middle of the summer. But significant questions remain: What have we learned about work from the pandemic? What changes are here to stay and what will revert back to the way things were before COVID-19? 

Social Distancing Will Remain in the Workplace

Health and safety will remain the priority, and social distancing will remain a part of the workplace for a long while, said Elizebeth Varghese, global leader of talent and HR strategy reinvention at IBM Global Business Services. When fear and uncertainty are still present, it’s up to companies to step up to the plate so that employees can focus on doing their jobs, she said. 

“Every company must become a health-oriented company by supporting their employee’s holistic well-being to ensure their greatest competitive advantage – their people – remain engaged, empowered and productive. Employees are demanding more from their employers, including more flexibility regarding when and where they do their work,” Varghese said.

If and when employers open their offices again, Varghese said employees will expect employers to take measures to protect their health and safety, and social distancing in the workplace will remain one of many precautions that will be taken.

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The Hybrid Workforce Is Here to Stay

Although both executives and employees expect the hybrid workplace to remain long after the end of the pandemic, the number of days employees will be working in the office is up for debate. A survey from PWC indicated that while 55% of workers would prefer to work remotely at least three days a week, 68% of executives polled believe the average employee should be in the office at least three days a week. 

Although the digital workplace was catapulted forward by the pandemic, it’s the requirement to support a hybrid workforce that will continue driving it forward, said Pat Calhoun, CEO of enterprise service management company Espressive. A recent Gartner survey revealed that 90% of HR leaders will allow employees to work from home at least part of the time post-vaccine, and 65% will continue to allow flexibility on when employees work.

“The same study found that 50% of the workforce wants to return to the office at least part of the time," Calhoun said. "The key is ‘at least part of the time.’ There will be a requirement to support employees from anywhere, anytime, and that demands digital technology.”

Jori Saeger, vice president of marketing and customer engagement at Uplevel, a Seattle-based engineering effectiveness platform provider, said a survey of their employees found that none wished for things to go back to the way they were before the pandemic.

“While everyone is craving in-person brainstorming and collaboration, most employees agree that they would like to remain remote most of the time and save in-person time for focused collaborations and brainstorms,” said Saeger. “No one misses the commute or the open office environment where everyone is desperately trying to get deep work done."

Most companies will offer more flexibility than ever before, Saeger said. "There is still a strong value for having a ‘home base’ where employees can meet and work on projects. But our belief is that most work will get done remotely, with weekly or monthly sessions scheduled with specific agenda that require more collaboration for in-person meetings.” 

Related Article: Could the Future of Work Be Hybrid?

Time for a Renewed Digital Workplace Strategy

Although his company's employee data tell a different story, Iain Fisher, director and solutions lead of ISG Digital EMEA at ISG, a global technology research and advisory firm, agreed that a hybrid workforce is the most likely scenario going forward. That makes digital strategy even more important.

“The workplace is headed for a hybrid return to work which will require digital integration," he said. "This requires workplaces to become more integrated to ensure collaboration and effectiveness of the workforce, and that requires a digital strategy to deliver a digital workplace.”  

Fisher foresees the need for additional health and safety measures going forward, which will have a large impact on the digital workplace. “With new biosecurity needing to be in place, we will see a 'lower touch' environment, which means that digital will need to be built into facilities to understand physical workplace usage, link remote employees to those who choose to work in the office, and ensure that remote workers are supported with their work and work-life balance to maintain mental health,” he said.

Most companies recognized that the hybrid workplace is here to stay, but the tools that employees rely on will have to improve in order to keep employees engaged. 

“Best practices from last year, such as encouraging employees to simply use video and chat capabilities in their workflows, aren’t enough to keep them engaged anymore," said Bobby Beckmann, general manager of meeting solutions at Lifesize, a cloud communications and collaboration services provider. "To take hybrid work and the digital workplace to the next level in 2021, communication and collaboration tools must become more inclusive and firmly rooted in organizations’ core work cultures."

That means implementing more creativity-inducing, personalized tools that promote natural human connections at work, even from home or other atypical work venues, Beckmann said.

Collaborative Spaces for Team-Focused Work

With the remote and hybrid workplace, many companies are likely to allow employees to work remotely, calling them into the office when it is time to collaborate with other employees. “Collaborative spaces for team-focused work give individuals an environment to collectively and creatively solve problems more quickly, breaking silos and fostering personal relationships and a sense of camaraderie,” said Varghese.  

Virtual collaboration software will enable remote employees to collaborate with in-office employees. “Virtual collaboration and networking will become critical to keep employees engaged and productive,” Varghese said, noting that IBM applies AI to connect employees on projects in virtual teaming environments, which supports on-the-job learning. "Organizations who provide these spaces can be more productive and more resilient as they will be more able to reskill and upskill their workforce to align to changing business needs.”

Others see the use of asynchronous meetings as an effective way for teams to collaborate, both in the office and remotely. Saeger relates asynchronous meetings to Slack messages and emails, and said that they are an interesting way to promote healthy communication and collaboration. “They allow for collaboration without requiring everyone to be together at the same time," she said. "Moreover, as culture building moves online, it’s up to leaders to think through creative ways to build a strong, high performing culture.” 

Learning Opportunities

When dealing with remote employees, leaders will have to understand that more effort will have to be put towards fostering relationships and building trust online without the ability for employees to physically share a cup of coffee and chat in person. “In remote settings, managers need to truly lead by example whether that means not sending communications during off hours and signing off at the end of the work day, or to make a point of not multitasking. If your team is in too many meetings and has too much to get done, then there’s a good chance they will be trying to do two things at the same time,” said Saeger.

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Is This the End of Office Cubicles?

One of the biggest questions is whether office cubicles will be viewed as a positive part of social distancing practices, perhaps enhanced by transparent plastic dividers similar to those now commonly used in stores. Some employers may be considering alternatives that place further distance between employees, or with something altogether different such as standup desks that can be used by employees and disinfected as required on a case-by-case basis. 

Jobs previously accomplished in office by employees may now be done by remote workers, reserving in-office meetings for when teams are involved. Methods of disinfection, air distribution systems, and distances between employees are likely to play a much larger role in workplace social distancing, and cubicles may be viewed as an archaic and unhealthy means of separating employees. 

Varghese foresees companies focusing more on the purpose of the workplace as a place where people come together to innovate and collaborate and less on its physical aspects. “Physical office spaces will also become gathering places — where you go not because you ‘have to’ but because you ‘want to’ — to connect and collaborate," she said. "Employees are demanding more flexibility in their jobs, so to manage flexible work, employers and employees should consider: What is best done in the office, for whom, and how often. This approach changes the focus from activities to outcomes.”

Related Article: The Future of Office Design After COVID

Big Changes in Change Management

The pandemic raised both the importance and the awareness of change management. A recent Gartner report indicated that the risk of change fatigue among employees doubled in 2020, and the impact of day-to-day changes is up two and a half times what it was in 2019.

“That means even the simplest update could cause significant disruption for employees,” Calhoun said. “IT leaders can pick the best technology and screw it in correctly, but if employees don’t adopt it, the technology will fail. Leadership needs to deploy a systematic approach when launching digital technologies to help employees embrace change.”

It’s key to involve employees throughout the change process and ensure they are provided with the tools they need to ensure that changes are successful. “Change is easiest to make stick when those that experience the change are brought on the journey with you,” Fisher said. “Therefore, undertake assessments of the process, the technology, and the people to understand what it is they need rather than what you think they need."

"Your employees serve the customer so ensure they have what they need to do that in the best possible way. Involving them in the journey to deliver as much of what they need to work the way they want is the key to a better customer experience. That is all delivered through effective change management.”

Changes to Hiring Practices

Aside from dealing with the ramifications of the pandemic, companies also have to remain aware of social and political unrest. The focus on social justice in 2020 caused many companies to revisit their corporate social responsibility plans as well as hiring practices. That brought diversity and inclusion to the forefront, leading companies to examine the fairness of their hiring with the help of AI and fostering more inclusive and flexible cultures, said Varghese.

“A doubled-down focus on diversity and inclusion is critical to this — and leaders are more focused on building environments where people feel comfortable bringing their full selves to work, teams are formed with diverse perspectives to drive better outcomes, and programs and policies serve varied employee well-being needs,” she said.

Research from IBM’s Institute for Business Value indicated that many Gen Z and Millennial-aged workers job-hopped in 2020, and they may be planning to do so again in 2021, underscoring new challenges that employers face in attracting and retaining talent, Varghese said. "Of the 28% of employees surveyed who plan to switch employers in 2021, their top reasons include the need for a more flexible work schedule or location, and increased benefits and support for their overall well-being,” she said. 

Now that companies are starting to see light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, many leaders are considering the long-term implications of the changes that have occurred over the past year. Social distancing will continue for the foreseeable future and when employees do go back to the office, businesses will have to be ready for a socially distanced workforce.

This change comes with benefits. The hybrid workplace will allow employees to remain flexible in how they work, and collaborative spaces will become more important as companies reconsider the cubicle. And a renewed focus on a diverse and inclusive workforce will provide companies with engaged, innovative employees and greater opportunities for growth.