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The Changing Workplace in the New COVID-19 Era

COVID-19

While there’s a lot of speculation of how things will change in the post-COVID-19 era, there’s one thing that we can count on: the workplace is here to stay. It is the heart of many institutions, where employees can come together face-to-face, share information, brainstorm ideas, and socialize around the water cooler. It’s an ideal vehicle for imparting corporate culture and values, and enables the team to bond through shared activities and experiences.

And, it’s often a place where planned serendipity can happen, where casual conversations can lead to new insights, connections and innovation. Steve Jobs recognized this power of the workspace. When the Pixar offices were being designed, he purposely located the bathrooms far away from workspaces so employees would have to walk by other areas where their colleagues were working, and end up having conversations that could lead to new ways of thinking and opportunities.

It’s only natural that we are drawn to the workplace since humans are social and crave interaction with others. During the quarantine, many people have felt lonely, cut off from others and missing the camaraderie of the office.

Yet, the workplace of tomorrow doesn’t have to look like the office of yesterday. Many teams that previously worked 9 to 5 in the office will permanently change their approach when we emerge from COVID-19, having adapted to a new and better way of working.

The new motto for the workplace of the future is “work from anywhere.” Forward-thinking organizations have been embracing telecommuting and mobile work for some time, combined with approaches such as hoteling, or hotdesking, because the old 1:1 employee/desk ratio no longer makes sense when people spend less time at the office. Instead, it is more efficient to have employees sign up for the workspace they need when they need it – reflecting both changing workers’ needs and the pressure to reduce real estate costs.

A 2017 Gallup survey found that employee engagement is optimized when people spend three to four days working remotely and a day or two in the office each week. Five years earlier, these figures were reversed.

The lessons learned during the quarantine will support this shift. While some organizations previously resisted mobile work, they have learned during lockdown that many people can work productively from home. Institutions that weren’t set up to accommodate remote work have made adjustments, ensuring employees have the right tools and changing their day-to-day practices, such as communicating through video conferencing and instant messaging.

So, what will the return to the workplace look like? Here are three trends that will gain momentum in the post-COVID-19 era:

  • Agile working. The pandemic has greatly accelerated the shift towards agile working that was already underway. Agile working encompasses more than just working from home – it means increasing employee autonomy so they have the freedom to work how, where and when they choose. It increases productivity, motivation and collaboration. In the Global Workspace Survey conducted by International Workplace Group (IWG), 85% of business executives found that providing greater workplace flexibility increased productivity, and, at the same time, these flexible work arrangements were preferred by more than 4 out of 5 employees.
  • Activity-based working. Activity-based working (ABW), which was born out of the agile working trend, is an approach by which organizations provide a variety of workspaces to accommodate employees’ different needs at different times, depending on the specific task at hand. For example, when conducting research, employees might opt for private desks in quiet, contained spaces with minimal distractions; collaboration and brainstorming needs might be well served by meeting rooms, booths, whiteboard tables and open areas; and consultations between faculty and students in universities, or patients and families in healthcare settings, might be best accommodated in small, private rooms.
  • Planned seating. One of the biggest concerns right now is how to get the employees back to the workplace safely and social distancing will be a large part of the solution. Institutions can enable this by using workspace scheduling software to accommodate social distancing rules. For example, it will give employees the option to sign up for desks and other work areas that are appropriate distances from colleagues, and in the event that someone has a confirmed case of COVID-19, it will be easy to trace which desks and rooms they used and who was nearby. Additionally, institutions can lower the capacity of meeting rooms to ensure that attendees can spread apart at a safe distance.

Planned seating can also be used for strategic purposes. While employees are often seated near colleagues in their department, changing that pattern can break down silos and increase the sharing of information and cross-pollination of ideas. A study conducted by Harvard Business School and Cornerstone OnDemand found that by changing seating arrangements, employee performance improved by 15%.

It’s clear that the workplace is changing and a new normal is emerging to enable a safer work environment. At the same time, the world’s largest remote working experiment has shown institutions the benefits of more flexible, agile work arrangements. As always, the organizations that thrive will be those that embrace new ways of thinking, best practices and lessons learned from the pandemic; and they will help usher in a more productive, collaborative, engaging workplace of the future.

John T. Anderson is CEO of Smartway2, which provides next-generation workplace scheduling solutions for schools, universities, healthcare facilities and other institutions and enterprises. He can be reached via email or LinkedIn.