Heading Back to the future.

Going back to the office is going to be a different experience for most workers. It will feel different. And in many cases, it will look different. The extent of that difference will, undoubtedly, vary by industry and company. A wide range of risk factors, operating models, job responsibilities, and office cultures means there is no silver-bullet solution that will guarantee safety and equity across the board. But the more we think about a post COVID-19 workplace, themes are starting to emerge.

We recently sat down with leaders from Starbucks, Paccar, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to talk about the trends they’re seeing, the changes they’re making, and how COVID-19 is reshaping the workplace.

Re-Entry will be phased. Emotional connections

Person sitting in brody with maskRe-entry will be phased

No matter what the future holds, for most companies, re-entry will resemble a phased and steady trickle instead of a spigot. A gradual transition back to the office will probably take the form of most critical on-site returning first down to surveying team members to figure out who actually wants to return. But no matter how companies approach their re-entry, they will have to balance short-term risk with long-term planning.

In the near term, companies will undoubtedly have to encourage physical reminders for social distancing as well as moving to an every-other-desk policy to create more space for employees. Conference room capacities will have to be divided by half, and in-office collaboration won’t look or feel as close knit as its pre-COVID form.

Emotional connections still matter. Even from a distance

Several design theories abound about new, “six-foot foot” offices with dystopian circles and distance marking paving the way for the future. But these fail to account for design’s innate ability to improve upon previous models. Among the many changes COVID-19 is bringing to the workplace, the need for human connection will not be among them

Physical distance isn’t the only barrier to connection. Companies must also grapple with the question of equity in the workplace. In a work culture that rewards high visibility, how can new remote workers receive recognition and feel a sense of connection and value from the companies they work for? Equity becomes especially critical for high-risk remote workers who can’t return to the office even if they wanted to.

Emotional Connection Quote

“No matter what technology we adopt, it has to put everyone in the company on the same footing. There’s a feeling that I have to be at work to be recognized and known as a contributor. We have to figure out a way to make those people feel valued and recognized.”

– Rob Branson, Senior Director Global Technology and Operations, Paccar.

Answering the equity question can help organizations reexamine not just reward and recognition systems, but also improve the ways that vulnerable employees or those impacted by socioeconomic reasons get more access to better opportunities.

Remote work become official

Over the past several months, remote work has gone from an exception to the expectation. Even though the sample size is small, early productivity returns have several companies realizing that working from home might actually be good for business.

Does that forebode doom and gloom for the physical space? Not at all. For most companies, COVID 19 is only speeding up a shift that was already starting to happen in the first place. Right now the gravitational pull towards remote work is only encouraging companies to finally formalize long-term working from home policies.

“Letting employees have more choice when it comes to where they work is something our leadership has wanted to do for a long time. This [COVID-19] has sort of forced the issue. We’re definitely going to have a more codified policy.”

— Mark Weigum,  Starbucks

Remote work may sound easy, but it comes with questions that have far-reaching implications as well as opportunities. How can companies use technology as a culture-building tool? How can they easily identify work and teams that are more productive outside of the office? And how does increased remote work impact the physical office itself?

New work. New technology.

For many organizations and industries, returning to work after COVID-19 has underscored the need for new workplace technology. For others, the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of long-overdue solutions.

While organizations have been making good use of video conferencing solutions like Zoom, there’s a wide consensus that technology needs to go further towards enhancing user experiences and building on – instead of eroding – company culture.

“If the office becomes a flexible space where people come to meet and collaborate, they need to know where to go right when they arrive on campus. How do we limit risk and improve the experience by not forcing people to walk around aimlessly looking for a place to go?”

– Sharon Loveland, Workplace Strategy Manager, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

As remote work transforms some offices into more flexible environments for impromptu collaboration, new hoteling solutions will replace traditional assigned seats. In these cases, using technology to help employees locate open desk areas and find their way more easily to meetings can both increase safety by limiting contact and create a better in-office experience. For post COVID-19 office spaces, technology is serving as both a tool for safety and a catalyst for change.

Companies that try to force solutions, as well as those who attempt to immediately return to normal will likely struggle. Change is inevitable, but the process of change requires an open mind, collaborative thinking – and yes, some trial and error. If companies can use the return to the workplace as an opportunity to adapt and evolve, they’ll be stronger today and ready for the next big disruption.