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How will we return to the workplace?

Questions are swirling about how and when companies will return to the office, if they have a plan or intentions to at all. As COVID-19 cases level off in some states and spike in others, the path ahead seems wildly unclear for many organizations.  Right now, employee sentiments vary. Not every worker is clamoring to […]

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Questions are swirling about how and when companies will return to the office, if they have a plan or intentions to at all. As COVID-19 cases level off in some states and spike in others, the path ahead seems wildly unclear for many organizations. 

Right now, employee sentiments vary. Not every worker is clamoring to go back to the physical workplace, but not everybody wants to stay home, either. Indeed, many employees have greatly enjoyed the flexibility of working from home, and countless studies have shown employees prefer remote work and are often more productive at home. By the same token, other employees have struggled. Some have less-than-ideal living conditions – maybe they share small apartments with partners, young children or bellowing dogs. Perhaps they have unknown mental health conditions, which are just now surfacing. Longtime remote workers have grown accustomed to the work-from-home lifestyle. Conversely, for many, this is still new territory. And it’s challenging.

These vastly different experiences should inform what returning to work looks like for each company – and for some organizations, the process will be clunky, complicated and onerous. Here’s what I suspect it will look like.

Adios, open office. Hello again…boardrooms?

Nobody really knows what the office will look like next, but we do know this: There has been pushback on the open office concept, which dominated workspaces in recent years. Offices have shrunk, and employees have been working in closer proximity. This has opened the door to a more democratic workplace and torn down barriers between workers, managers and executives.

However, as we continue to face a global (and very contagious) pandemic, the open configuration will likely change in the new office environment. Employees and business leaders will want physical barriers and distance between each other to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

For years, huddle rooms – small nooks and spaces meant for two or three collaborators who don’t mind sharing space – have boomed in popularity. They provided quiet escapes from the open configuration and allowed employees to communicate and collaborate in small, flexible, spontaneous and intimate groups.

Instead, there could be a shift towards large boardrooms again, which would allow multiple employees to remain a safe distance apart. Six months ago, this would have sounded absurd to me. Now, a return to large boardrooms seems like a viable option for meetings in the new office.

As a result, rooms and the technologies in them will need to be managed, treated and used differently, including reexamining the devices in the rooms and where they are located. For example, shared devices will likely be eliminated to deter people from touching them, or multiple devices will be added and placed in various spots of the room so that employees can maintain appropriate distance while using devices.

Video conferencing was popular in the office before the pandemic, and its role as a bridge to distributed teams will likely continue rising as more employees work remotely. But multiple people often share these devices in small rooms and boardrooms. Executives and facilities or office managers must rethink how they structure rooms and hold meetings, including determining if meeting schedules should be more spaced out, whether multiple video systems should be installed in a room and what role touchless technology will play.

Workspaces could shrink again, even if the open office is tossed.

For many companies, the chief financial officer will be taking a close look at building leases. As companies and employees work together to determine who returns to the office – and on what cadence or timetable – executives will have board-level conversations about corporate real estate.

A majority of employees will likely be given the option to work from home (some permanently) and many will bite. Yet, a good chunk will want to return. Given this shift, a downsized in-person workforce will require CFOs to consider moving to smaller or differently laid-out offices. One-to-one desk assignments (and the floorspace they consume) won’t be nearly as necessary, and I suspect spaces will be less reserved for certain purposes in favor of being more modular to accommodate come-and-go interactions.

In tandem, employees’ commutes and housing will be disrupted. For many, their personal life choices have depended greatly on their commutes and where they live in relation to their work. When office locations move or go away entirely, personal lives feel the ripple effects. And as such, office life will be different and in-office employees will need to adjust to new surroundings and new routines. 

Behaviors will change with the times.

Humans have short memories. At this point in the global pandemic, many people have grown accustomed to time in relative isolation. Most have interacted in-person with only a handful of other individuals. Some haven’t interacted in-person with anybody in months. 

This likely won’t change, or the transition out of it will be gradual, at least. As a result, gathering in-person in the office kitchen, sharing a drink at the end of the workday and large office parties will fade for the foreseeable future.

Additionally, how we interact with machines – dialing phones, handling shared devices and operating TVs – will change. Currently, employees are used to interacting with work devices like they do personal devices in their houses. There’s no risk involved; we don’t worry about other people’s germs on the remote control.

How we interact with communal devices again will not be a foregone conclusion. Touchless and voice-activated hardware and mobile integration through Bluetooth will skyrocket in the office. If there are still communal devices in workspaces, such as speakerphones and video conferencing cameras, they will be synced with office networks and employees will be able to operate them from their own phones or by using voice commands, eliminating all possible contact.

All these conversations and weighing of options will inevitably take place. As organizations large and small across the country face incredible obstacles and tradeoffs in returning to work, executives must look at every angle and determine what is most feasible and appropriate for their workforce. It will look different for me and my company in Austin, Texas than it will for my colleagues in the Bay Area or friends in New York City.

These will be challenging times and questions to answer, for sure. Yet I know we will reach the other side with more resilient and agile workplaces and workforces than ever before – and in doing so, we will be more collectively prepared for even greater challenges in the future.

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