While some offices are already operating at some capacity, many organisations still have the majority of employees working from home and are now making difficult decisions about how to bring people back into a shared space while managing new restrictions.
Looking ahead, it seems likely that the way we’ve structured and run our organisations has now changed forever. Employees, who’ve been asking for more flexibility and remote working options for years, won’t want to give that up now they’ve proved themselves. And in fact, businesses who have discovered their workers can be trusted, are also unlikely to want to lose the financial benefits they’ve gained, or waste the investment which has made that flexibility possible.
Is this what your employees want? Is this what you want?
While homeworking has been an incredibly positive experience for many companies - proving their staff are reliable, hardworking and productive when working remotely - there are very real concerns which are likely to mean most organisations will want to bring employees back into offices going forward. But this will now need to happen in a new way.
For one thing, the social aspects of sharing physical space are incredibly important for wellbeing as well as team cohesion and relationships. Additionally, many companies have found that creativity and visionary thinking has been lacking when collaboration is happening through screens, it’s recognised that face to face meetings are much more effective in these situations.
The scenario which most employees seem to desire is more flexibility in working conditions. While this includes the opportunity to utilise shared offices, whether we’re considering working hours or location, individuals don’t want to lose this autonomy they’ve been given. So what kind of hybrid working practices will we need to see to keep these staff happy?
The first step to bringing employees back into your space, is to ensure clear communication so everyone understands what is expected of them.
A blanket announcement that everything will return to “normal” with employees expected to attend the office full time on a given date would undoubtedly receive a mixed response.
While there will likely be those pleased with such news, there will also be many individuals with personal concerns about their own situation, considerations which might be for health and safety as well as freedom and flexibility.
As an organisation you’ll need to understand why offices are being reopened and what you expect that to look like, but communication is two-way and it’s important to recognise the needs of your employees and ensure they have the opportunity to raise any concerns.
One thing I keep coming back to in these articles, is the importance of employee engagement - an engaged workforce will support your business better. Central to that employee engagement is listening to what people want and need and providing opportunities to improve their working environment.
This is an opportunity for you to listen to what your employees need from you and develop a ‘Office Opening’ policy which provides the benefits they’re looking for as well as fulfilling your organisational needs.
The management of health and safety requirements within our offices has changed dramatically since the beginning of 2020. And, alongside new rules regarding social distancing and the maintenance of clean spaces, there is also a need to be mindful of employees' personal concerns regarding their own vulnerability as well as those in their network.
Organisations can be doing a number of things to manage the safety of their offices including:
Providing sanitising stations at entrances and exits.
Managing physical spaces differently - providing distanced desk and seating areas, physical screens and traffic flow around spaces.
Ensuring touch-free facilities in as many (particularly high-traffic) areas as possible e.g. access points, lifts, printers, canteens.
Using technology to ensure occupancy rates around the building - whether that’s cameras, or the tracking of door entry and room bookings.
Desk and room booking services and providing proximity alerts to employees.
Ensuring your staff are confident in the solutions you’ve provided is essential, while alongside this is the need to build in flexibility to allow for future developments.
Flexibility in a changing world
Having managed our offices and workspaces in ways which have changed very little over previous decades, the events of 2020 have highlighted how quickly change may happen.
Flexibility in the management of these spaces from now on will be the expectation for a number of reasons.
As health and safety requirements change in the short to medium term, it is likely our office spaces will change to reflect them. We would expect, as the current health risks reduce, our environments to move back to something similar to pre-pandemic times, however it is likely there will be some elements of our current structure which remain. The ability to reimagine our spaces for changing needs will be beneficial to ensure some long-term flexibility.
As we’ve already discussed, it is not only the physical health concerns which have changed in the past year, but employee and employer expectations. For many organisations, there is no point inviting employees back to permanent fixed desk working when that can be done at home. The reasons individuals will have for wanting to return to offices will be varied, but the opportunity is here to try and meet those needs. If offices are places for collaboration, learning and social interaction, it makes sense for these spaces to be developed to reflect that. Providing spaces which work for collaboration and hybrid meetings with virtual as well as physical attendees are likely to be the priority going forward - quite a leap from banks of small desks designed for personal working.
A productive atmosphere
If our needs from an office environment have changed, then creating spaces which are productive will also - no doubt - have changed too.
While productivity was once likely to be achieved with a quiet space to get your head down, workers may now look to perform those tasks at their home-working desk. Coming into the office is now likely to be an opportunity for collaborative working, shared ideas and big thinking - it’s important our spaces reflect that need.
Creating workspaces which promote collaborative and creative working will potentially be the new priority - and this doesn’t just come from large tables and whiteboards, but spaces built for conversation and inspiration. Using interior design, art, planting and outside spaces to promote a mindset and strengthen community.
As we open up offices, we need to know what they’re there for
Our working environments have been changed by necessity and our expectations have changed through our experiences of the past year.
What happens next will be different for each organisation, but it makes sense to use the opportunity of these necessary changes to think about developing our spaces to serve our businesses better.
About the Author
I'm Terry Chana. I am an innovation strategist that connects customer, employee and brand experiences. My passion lies in building ecosystems to solve business problems by combining creativity and technology.