Workplaces aren’t going back to the way things were before the COVID-19 pandemic — they can’t.
Industries have never experienced anything like the literal overnight change in operations that happened in March 2020. Because of the magnitude and uncertainty of the pandemic, workplaces couldn’t just pause operations until they reopened again, or take a wait and see stance. They had to alter how they fundamentally conducted business, with the largest being the shift to remote work. The transformation was massive, jumping business operations forward years, if not a decade.
Now that organizations have been forced to adapt to a remote world, there’s not going to be a return to the way things were. Employees have experienced — and enjoyed — the benefits of working remotely, like no longer having to commute, having the freedom to work where they want, having more focus away from office distractions, and being able to spend more time with family, on hobbies, or relaxing.
And organizations are listening. Major companies like Salesforce, Twitter, and Zillow are now allowing their employees to work remotely indefinitely, and many other companies are rethinking policies and actions to accommodate flexible work arrangements. This means that businesses need to evaluate what they must change in order to keep their newly remote workforce happy while at the same time maintaining productivity and engagement. This also means that businesses who want to compete for talent need to realize that employees are expecting workplaces to adapt — or else they’ll find a new workplace.
What does the “future of work” mean for businesses in a post-COVID world?
The New Office Configuration
While many organizations are moving to a fully remote workforce, there are times when teams may need to be present in an office. Yet when employees do return to the workplace, they’re going to encounter a very different set-up.
For a long time, cubicles and offices were the standard, and before the pandemic, workplaces experimented with open office configuration to encourage more collaboration and interaction between teams. The days of the open office may be over due to health and safety concerns, yet transitioning everyone to remote and shutting down the office may not be an option either. But it doesn’t make sense to require everyone to come back and work in a cube for forty hours a week either.
Organizations now need to ask, What will our physical office space be for?
It’s likely that the future of work will be a hybrid, with a mix of in-office and at-home workers. More autonomous tasks or projects may be done individually at home. While the pandemic has accelerated the use of remote tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other video conferencing platforms, office time will be used more thoughtfully and intentionally for team interaction.
Look for workplaces with unassigned open desks so employees can have the freedom to work where they want, and hoteling stations or “hot desking” may become the norm for employees rotating in and out of the office. We may also see a shift from wired desktop computers to laptops, so employees have the freedom to work on-site or off.
Organizations will also need to ask, How will we keep our employees safe and healthy? This will lead to a hygienic revamp of office spaces, including no-touch door activation, spread-out spaces for social distancing, and plexiglass installations between open cubes. We may also see more vigilance around taking sick time, and work cultures shift to encourage staying home instead of powering through a workday when ill (as has too often been the unspoken expectation).
Working from Home and the Hybrid Workforce
Despite the uncertainty and worry around a sudden shift to remote, many employees have discovered the benefits of working from home: no long, unpaid commute to work, being able to spend more time with family, more time to pursue hobbies or get more rest, and even the ability to move cities without losing their job. Many enjoy being able to work comfortably dressed down, as workplace dress codes no longer apply. Many employees are also becoming more productive and less distracted when out of an office setting.
The taste of better work/life balance employees have received means that they’re not going to want to return to the “old ways.” Yet organizations still need to maintain business operations, productivity, and growth.
What’s the solution? A hybrid work structure is likely to emerge. This model will need to balance personal preference and team needs, and will most likely have employees in the office two or three days a week, with the other days done remotely. Time in the office will focus on face-to-face interactions, planning meetings, and check-ins. Seeing others in person also offers the chance for impromptu hallway conversations that may lead to further collaboration, and gives the opportunity for relationship-building.
Teams that are going to stay remote, or leverage remote options during their work-from-home days, will need tools to do so, like video conferencing and communication tools that allow for easy collaboration and interaction. Remote teams also need a central calendar to see who is in the office and who is working from home, awareness around time differences, and sensitivity in scheduling.
Communication and Collaboration
Teams working remotely are going to need tools to keep up collaboration and productivity in this new work world — tools that go beyond Zoom and email.
During the pandemic, we’ve learned the benefits of good video conferencing software in order to keep up with friends and family, and host meetings and events. But workplaces need to think deeper around how to simulate in-office collaboration. Productivity tools like Slack, Google Chat, and Microsoft Teams can help teams keep up the dialogue around ongoing projects.
When it comes to trading documents, teams can use shared drives like OneDrive, Google Drive, or Microsoft Teams, and utilize the track changes and comments features in Office to keep the conversation going. Or teams can shift to Google docs for centralized, real-time updates and back-and-forth commenting. When it comes to interacting in a remote meeting, have digital whiteboards available, and use the Share Screen function to keep everyone literally on the same page.
Finally, organizations need to make sure remote teams are equipped with the right technology to do their job. Issue laptops with updated software, and provide any equipment needed for remote presenting, like cameras, mics, or lighting. The move to remote means that no one will be working from the secure office network anymore, so make sure IT is aware of any new security issues, and set everyone up on a VPN. Also be aware of Wi-Fi restrictions that may happen as employees work from home connections, and consider providing a stipend that covers the increased internet and electricity usage.
Engagement and Motivation
A hybrid workplace or a fully-remote team not only requires leaders to think differently about how to keep engagement and morale up, it may even change how employees define feeling engaged by their workplace.
Find creative ways to keep employees informed and feeling cared for. This can include greater communication with higher transparency, which may be a weekly overview email or manager office hours on Zoom. Create opportunities for connection through engagement or morale activities like virtual social events (think active participation, like a game or ice breaker). Brainstorm ways to have informal competitions (like best home office decorations), virtual recognition programs, or use a Slack channel for a fun “Question of the week.” Just because teams are remote doesn’t mean they don’t want to still interact with one another. In fact, interaction may be more important now than before.
But an organization can’t put into place new virtual initiatives and just expect them to be successful. This is why it’s important to design a plan for measuring engagement in this new work environment. Is it benefiting the team? Is productivity continuing? Is the business better for it? Or is morale slipping because everyone is now so disconnected? Evaluate the success of the initiative, and make adjustments as needed to ensure both employees and business operations are functioning well.
The Future of Work is Right Now
The pandemic didn’t give workplaces the option to change: They had to in order to keep operations running and employees employed. Offices won’t go back to the way they were before the pandemic, so workplaces need to rethink office space, flexible work options, collaboration tools, and engagement. But the benefits will outweigh the challenges: happier, more productive employees with better work/life balance, attracting talent that is no longer location-bound, and lower office overhead costs, to name a few.
Now is the time for organizations to adapt and start planning for a post-COVID world, because those who think things will go back to the way they were will be left in the past.