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Four Ways the Post-COVID Workplace Will Look Different

Even as we have more clarity around the vaccination timelines around the world, there is continued uncertainty around when people will be able to go back to work and how their workspaces will look when they do. For the past year, we have heard that this is the remote work “tipping point.” But does this mean that the physical workplace is going away? Or will most companies adopt a hybrid model: a combination of in-person and remote work?

To try to gauge what employees prefer, my company Envoy recently conducted a survey among 1,000 U.S. employees. What we found was that the majority of employees want to return to their workplace once COVID restrictions are lifted. Of those surveyed, a whopping 90 percent say they do miss the workplace. When asked what specifically they miss about their office they ranked friends and teammates, small talk at the coffee machine or water cooler, and perks like lunch and snacks as the highest reasons, in that order. 

The social part of the office experience seems to be what people value the most. But it seems that they don’t need it every day, or even most days, with 94 percent reporting they’d like to spend at least one day on-site each week. People are still also very worried about outbreaks in the workplace, of course, 75 percent said they would consider quitting their job if they felt their employers’ actions to prevent COVID-19 were inadequate or inappropriate. But this outlook will thaw as we move closer to herd immunity. 

Many parts of daily life will never be the same in a post-COVID world, and the office is no exception. Businesses will need to consider how the workplace should evolve in the longer term. Workplace technology will need to be deployed, policies put in place, and precautions implemented. Here a few of the significant trends we can expect to see in workplace strategy in the next few years. 

Hybrid-first

Prior to the pandemic, most companies operated as either office-first or remote-first. Going forward, the lines between to two will blur and most workplaces will rely on hybrid models. Everyone has a reason for not always wanting to come into the office. Whether it be the ability to focus without the distractions of an open office, removing a time-consuming commute, or the flexibility to balance personal needs with work commitments, people are seeing the benefits of a flexible workplace model. And many will never want it to go back. Some have even established new lives around their new freedom. Remote work is likely one of the main causes for the population increase in smaller towns and suburban communities. 

Companies too are seeing the benefits. The biggest one is cost. Many organizations are rethinking their office space needs, both how much and where it is located. It also affects the way that companies attract talent. An office with nice amenities used to be one of the biggest tools in a recruiter’s arsenal. Now workers prefer flexibility so companies will need to offer the ability to use the office as needed as a way to bring in the best and the brightest.

As more offices open, an average week for most employees will be a combination of working from home, the office, co-working spaces, or anywhere else they feel most productive. There will be some employees that opt to return to the office five days a week, but many will only come in two or three days per week based on meetings and other team needs. This means that real estate will need to find ways to best utilize space when people are in buildings and ways to activate it when they are not. All of this starts from a better understanding of the occupants, be it by sensor or survey. 

Offices get even more open

The open office layout has gained popularity in the last few decades. This can be attributed mostly to its increased density and enhanced collaboration. The open office will always have important cost-saving and time-saving benefits but they will now need to be balanced with the health-saving aspects of distancing.

In response to the pandemic, we may see shifts away from purely open, shared spaces. But don’t expect a transformation where everyone isolates in their own offices—real estate costs are prohibitive already and businesses won’t likely be jumping to increase their square footage. 

Expect much more space being necessary per person, which also means many fewer people per office. We’ve seen some office plans starting to account for 30 percent less seating space due to the six-feet separation recommended by the CDC. This makes existing real estate space planning that much more important to ensure desks and meeting rooms are actually being used efficiently. With fewer people in the office on a daily basis, we should expect to see more companies relying on hot-desking and encouraging employees to reserve a workspace before entering the office. 

More data, more value

We are in all new territory so companies will value analytics on how we use our workplaces even more. How we gather data will change as well. The idea of using a paper logbook at the front desk will seem even more outdated. Offices will insist on hands-free digital sign-in technology which will also be used to understand building usage and help keep us safer from the risks of the pandemic.

In the short term, these systems may ask questions about employees’ or guests’ health or recent travel plans, but post-pandemic they’ll also help us take more proactive approaches to staying healthy. By revealing the last time a desk has been wiped down, what rooms an ill employee sat in last week, or when an air filter was last changed buildings will be required to be much more communicative going forward.

Health and safety won’t be the only place that analytics play a role though. Around the world, thousands of office leases are coming to an end. The following negotiation will create increased scrutiny around determining the value of the office. Answering questions on space usage, like “What percentage of desks are we using?” or “How often are our conference rooms full?” will be the difference between resigning a lease and having vacant space. 

Attitude adjustment

While many of us will return to the workplace in some form, our attitudes towards it will be quite different. Gone are the days where you might have soldiered through a runny nose to make sure that you were seen in the office; working from home will be widely accepted and encouraged.

For businesses where remote work is impractical (healthcare, retail, hospitality, etc.) staffing plans may be adjusted up to reflect this possibility of precautionary time off, and customers will hopefully be more understanding when their preferred doctor, barber or bartender takes time off to recover.

And for employees who can work from home but choose to mostly be in an office, they’ll no longer be strangers to the remote experience. The friction that comes from some members of a team being in an office and others remote will be a thing of the past, as everyone is now familiar with the remote work experience.

It’s not just the office that will change, the home office will also be transformed. We’ll see more sophisticated setups become commonplace in the home, for example, more thoughtful camera placement and acoustic considerations and companies providing stipends for headphones and desk equipment for remote workers.

While many parts of our daily lives will change as we overcome the pandemic and adapt to a new normal, we can expect that the office is here to stay. Beyond the number of jobs that can’t be performed from home, there is inherent value in the ability to work alongside your colleagues. Creativity and collaboration are achieved more easily through the serendipity of running into a teammate in the office kitchen, or the ease of pulling up a chair next to a coworker to tackle a tough project. The workplace provides social interactions and boundaries between work and life. I know we have all gained a new appreciation for this in recent months. For many of us, the office is here to stay but what it looks like next is still, as the kids say, TBD.

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