It’s a brave new world – post-COVID-19. During this crisis, we have been constructively creative in finding ways to get our work done while eagerly awaiting normalcy. But as more time has passed, the creeping reality is that we may never be exactly what we were.
As we return to work, feeling safe in the office will eclipse nearly every other objective. The way we work and how we feel about being together has changed, maybe permanently. We’ll have to find new ways to work while keeping safe and productive and getting the economy revved up again.
More than protection from a contagious virus, changes to workspaces can be a time of innovation, leading to more workable solutions and more creative outcomes.
The Role of the Office
There was a time when we thought business required an office. It legitimized our work – if it wasn’t in an office, it wasn’t real work. Companies focused considerable time and resources to establish themselves in enviable office spaces. But shifts in lifestyle choices began to change, not just our mindset, but the mindsets of corporate America. Slowly, it became acceptable to work remotely, at least part-time. Then COVID-19 happened, and we became more creative out of necessity.
Companies had no choice but to facilitate remote working on a broader scale than before, though not every industry lends itself well to this. It was a self-defense measure. As profits dwindled, home offices multiplied, effectively upending the structure of the working world that had been in place for generations.
Three out of five workers who have worked from home during the crisis say that they would prefer to continue to work from home in the future. McKinsey research shows that 80% of remote workers say that they enjoy it, with 41% saying they are more productive at home than at the office, and 28% say they are as productive as before. That’s good news because many of them will be asked by their employers to do just that – continue to work from home most days.
In addition to retaining the employees they have, companies are finding that they can access a broader pool of talent when their geographic location is taken out of the equation. It is still possible to create an influential company culture with a large portion of the staff working remotely. It has the notable benefit of significantly reducing real estate costs.
That being said, many workers who have worked from home for the past year will soon need to start returning to the office, at least part-time. Many people have grown accustomed to a work-from-home structure that doesn’t require extended commute times to the office, especially younger workers who are more used to working with the technology that we have all had to rely on over the past year. Many have already stated that they are not looking forward to returning to a more traditional work structure, even for only a few days of the week. It will take some time before these employees can get back into the swing of in-person workdays.
What to Expect
For those who do return to the office, what can you expect to see? A lot of changes, from the layouts of your offices to many new added features.
Delays and Temperature Checks
Before you even walk into your office, the first change will be the time it takes just to enter the building. Schedules will be implemented to stagger the times that employees arrive at work – this to avoid the long queues we already face just trying to get into Walmart.
In efforts to minimize congregating in foyers, elevators, or even the office kitchen for that morning coffee cup, organizations will take measures to ensure that not everyone arrives together.
You will wait in lines to have your temperatures checked. You’ll sign daily questionnaires that ensure you are symptom-free, and you’ll be asked to wash or sanitize your hands at stations before going further. And if you have symptoms of even the common cold, you will be asked to leave the premises with polite urgency.
There may be literature and signage informing workers of the new rules and regulations, and there could be one-way paths to follow, like in grocery stores, designed to direct the flow of foot traffic and minimize contact. The whole process will feel overwhelming and exhausting – at first.
Open Plans – No More
The next considerable change will be the layout of workspaces. If your offices were an open plan, you’ll notice that the open-plan office is no more. While management loved the simplicity and cost-efficiency of it, it won’t comply with current regulations for a few specific reasons.
Open-plan offices may appear helpful in allowing employees to have more space to distance. They are indeed much easier to clean and regularly sanitize- an absolute requirement in a post-COVID world. However, an open-plan office does little to nothing to prevent the spread of germs between employees. Because of this, many employers are looking into lightweight, easily movable wall dividers that can serve as protective barriers between people’s workspaces. You should be prepared to see altered office spaces that are perforated with dividers and made far less dense, as you are distanced from your work colleagues.
Unable to squeeze in as many desks, some companies will deal with these limited accommodations for staff by encouraging remote working a few days per week. Many employees won’t need the added encouragement to avoid the office, as childcare needs and general uncertainty will hinder their enthusiasm.
Plexiglass dividers, hand washing/sanitizing stations, and a slew of new cleaning policies will be new features of offices from now on.
Workers will have to remind themselves that these measures are all for their safety – reminiscent of how we had to accept changes in airport security following 9-11.
In addition to automatic doors, high-end contactless systems like biometrics could rid us of the need for lanyards, buttons to press, and access cards. Contactless systems could mean simply waving your hand over touchless sensors. These measures could go a long way in making you feel safe in your work environment.
Physical distancing is significant and challenging. The office is fraught with areas where people naturally and involuntarily congregate. Restrooms, the office pantry, elevators, and the water cooler are all trouble spots. There is discussion in some offices of even building smaller but more numerous restrooms, to keep people from having too much close contact.
Communication, even with someone in the building, should be by phone, email, or video conferencing.
Markings around desks and other stationary objects are easy enough, but when we’re moving about, we must take extra care. Despite distancing measures and the steady rise in fully vaccinated workers, some offices will require the constant use of a face mask.
Apps may be added to your phone to monitor your movements throughout the workday. Employers are heavily invested in ensuring COVID-19 doesn’t run through their ranks. The tracing device will monitor and document where you go, who you have been in contact with, and even notify you when social distancing regulations aren’t being enforced. In addition to being downloaded on your phone, contact tracing software may work with your laptop, ID badge, light sensors in the building, and even wearables.
This level of monitoring can rightly raise serious privacy issues, but a balance must be struck between our safety and our legal rights to privacy.
If these changes seem expensive, it’s because they are. Many organizations will be unable to comply with all regulations so graciously, certainly not all in one go. Most changes will have to take place over time and as company resources allow. If we consider these changes as negatively impacting our businesses, we will not recover. But if we can see this as an opportunity for innovation and re-imagining of office space and work-life, we may find solutions we didn’t think possible.