Three must-haves for a relevant post-COVID workplace

by Adam Stoltz — Google the term “post-COVID” and you’ll find 45 million results advising you on everything from the long-term health effects of the virus to its future impact on more nuanced topics like fashion and the arts. For facilities managers, however, the term often means one thing: the time (probably this year) when businesses once again open their offices to employees.

Scroll through these pieces on return to office, and you’ll find loads of practical advice on how to prepare the workplace to mitigate risk and infection. Largely absent, though, is what I believe is a far greater challenge: addressing the new needs and expectations of the post-COVID employee.

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If we’re not focused on the new demands of workers, none of the facilities-related strategies implemented this year will matter. Why? Because people simply won’t show up.

COVID-19 has proven that remote work is not only efficient—with productivity and employee satisfaction exceeding nearly all expectations—but it is also feasible for a great many more employees than ever imagined.

Prior to the pandemic, roughly 4 in 10 U.S. employees performed some of their work remotely. By April of 2020, half of all U.S. employees were not only working remotely, they were doing it full-time. Among office workers, that percentage was much higher, reaching to more than 75 percent among many of my clients. Businesses would be fooling themselves to think that these liberated, happier and more productive workers are simply going to return to the office voluntarily. And companies that try to force the issue or offer the parental dictate “because I said so” are likely to encounter significant pushback.

At the same time, we know there remains a need for the office, and just because you can work from home, doesn’t mean you should. While a great number of employees do work successfully remotely, there are some whose jobs require them to be on site or who prefer to work in the office for a variety of reasons: routine, camaraderie, the inability to work effectively from home, etc.

The office has value for other reasons, too. Nearly 9 in 10 employees surveyed by PwC believe the workplace is important for collaboration. Ninety-five percent of executives responding to the same survey viewed the office as crucial to preserving and promoting office culture, identity and a sense of belonging.

How then should businesses and their facilities respond to a new reality in which a great many employees view the office as an option for work but no longer a requirement? At the same time, how do we ensure that the workplace efficiently and effectively supports work and serves as a hub for culture and collaboration?

To me, it comes down to three factors: 1) embracing flexibility, 2) understanding the new needs of employees, and 3) creating equity between in-person and distributed coworkers.

Flexibility

Like the workers themselves, the post-COVID workplace must become more flexible. I often encourage people to think of return to work as a dimmer switch as opposed to an off/on button. It’s unrealistic to expect any workplace to simply switch back to normal capacity or practices overnight. For this same reason, I prefer to use the term “emerging from COVID” rather than “post-COVID.” The latter suggests a specific date when the virus suddenly ceases to be a factor. A more realistic scenario is that the virus’ toll on public health gradually diminishes over the next 12 to 24 months even as daily infection rates continue to ebb and flow.

Like a dimmer switch, the emergence process allows for the use of the facility to expand and contract as need and demand warrants. Determining the use case and/or frequency of activity in the office and the amount of real estate needed requires using data to model occupancy scenarios. Companies with the most success providing for the new demands of employees will be those that use the data to plan for a range of possible futures that take into account employee preferences, the business needs, and space solutions.

Understanding Workers’ New Needs

For many employees, the great remote-work experiment of 2020 gave them something they’ve never had before in the workplace: choice. That may seem counterintuitive given the only option for many of us was to work from home. But in working from home, we also had the ability to run an errand or take a walk in the middle of the afternoon without judgment. We had the power to dress as we wish, crank the music, open a window, and work where we felt most comfortable and productive—be it the couch, the patio, the new home office, the attic, wherever.

This freedom cannot be overlooked. Yet many organizations have spent the past ten months focusing only on immediate responses to coronavirus, such as infection control. Granted, the health and safety of employees must be a top priority. But I’d argue that a year or two from now physical distancing, plexiglass barriers and other infection control efforts will have less draw for employees than workplace enhancements like greater seating options, better acoustics, personalized lighting and cleaner, more comfortable air.

Organizations that want their offices to be conducive to people’s new expectations need to be asking themselves: What changes are we making that would encourage our people to want to work from the office instead of remotely?

Figure 1: As we return to the office, a range of work settings that effectively support individual and group work are just as, if not more, important as they were prior to COVID-19.

Figure 1: As we return to the office, a range of work settings that effectively support individual and group work are just as, if not more, important as they were prior to COVID-19.

Equity Across the Greater Workplace

My colleagues and I often refer to the future workplace as an ecosystem of Hub, Home, Spoke. Within this ecosystem will be employees working within the physical office (the “hub”), employees working from home, and employees working from additional offsite “spokes,” such as coworking spaces, cafes or client sites. In the past, those working from the latter two locations (home and spokes) have been unintentionally ostracized.

Think, for example, what a typical team meeting with remote colleagues looked prior to COVID-19. Such a meeting might have had 90 percent of the team gathering in-person with one or two remote colleagues joining by phone. Those remote workers would spend 98 percent of the meeting desperately trying to hear and “see” what was being discussed and presented. Finally, as the conversation wrapped up, the meeting host would ask the colleagues on the phone if they had anything to add. Invariably the remote colleagues would add very little because A) they only comprehended a small percentage of the conversation and B) they had been ignored through the entirety of the meeting.

Such inequity between in-person and remote workers won’t be tolerated any longer. Going forward, the same team meeting I just described might have the majority joining remotely.

Technology, such as video conferencing, can help bridge the gap, but the solution to this type of workplace inequity doesn’t lie solely in new hardware and software. It requires new management and people skills. Organizations must look at how they communicate and engage with the full distribution of their employees and make sure all are given an equal opportunity to participate.

Figure 2: Under the Hub-Home-Spoke concept, employees work within an ecosystem of environments that best suit their daily needs and tasks at hand.

Figure 2: Under the Hub-Home-Spoke concept, employees work within an ecosystem of environments that best suit their daily needs and tasks at hand.

Final Thoughts

It’s refreshing to think how different life will be in the near future when we can safely gather again at restaurants, entertainment events and, yes, the office. And don’t get me wrong, we will gather again just as humans have done for millennia following pandemics much worse than this one.

What is different this time is technology that has made remote working possible for millions of people who would otherwise never have, or been permitted, to attempt it. Those people cannot—and should not—be expected to return to the workplace in exactly the same way as they once did. And yet the office can remain a valuable workplace option for those same employees provided it offers them a similar or better experience than they have at home.

To accomplish that feat, employers and facility managers must think beyond reactive strategies related to infection control and toward workplace environments that cater to the new demands and expectations of the post-COVID employee particularly when it comes to flexibility, choice and equity.

About the author

Adam Stoltz leads the Consulting practice for global architecture and design firm HOK. With more than 15 years of experience, Adam is a recognized thought leader in addressing the complex issues involving people, organizational performance and the built environment. He has been quoted in publications including The New York Times and Commercial Property Executive and is a member of CoreNet Global and the Urban Land Institute.