During the last one year, the pandemic has forced the adoption of new ways of working for a number of companies. For many it was not a matter of choice. Organisations were forced to re-imagine their work and the need for creating a safe and productive environment for their employees. Although working from home was a challenge for many, surveys indicated that most employees not only adapted to their new workplace but in fact preferred it. Despite the unprecedented operational challenges presented by the pandemic, many companies had risen to the occasion, acting swiftly to safeguard employees and migrate to a new way of working that even the most extreme business-continuity plans hadn’t envisioned. As the corporate world slowly recovers, we must expect a new normal as most companies will use the lessons from this large-scale work-from-home experiment to re-imagine how work is done and what role physical workplace should play in more creative and bold ways thus defining the new workplace.
Before the pandemic, the conventional wisdom had been that offices were critical to productivity, culture, and most importantly for attracting talent. Prime office space in major urban centres was actively sought for by companies that needed to show success and their employee culture. It has in fact been surprising how quickly and effectively technologies for videoconferencing and other forms of digital collaboration have been adopted. But even more surprising has been the results.
According to a recent research, majority of the people questioned enjoyed working from home but more importantly they felt either more or as productive. With the ever expanding size of larger cities and the huge burden on public transport; the lockdowns and work from home liberated many employees from long commutes and travel.
With substantial time saved many found more productive ways to spend that time, enjoyed greater flexibility in balancing their personal and professional lives, and decided that they prefer to work from home rather than the office.
The success of this model has also forced a number of organisations to rethink their workplace strategy. Many companies now think they can access new pools of talent with fewer locational constraints, adopt innovative processes to boost productivity, create an even stronger culture, and at the same time significantly reduce their real-estate costs.
As more and more workplaces are reopening they have been forced to make necessary changes and follow complex SOPs. Many companies require employees to wear masks at all times, redesign spaces to ensure physical distancing, and restrict movement in congested areas (for instance, elevators, meeting rooms and cafeterias). As a result, even after the reopening, attitudes toward offices are evolving with most companies trying to create a balance/ hybrid model with alternate options of working from both home and office.
The expected redesign of the new workplace also poses a number of questions. Satisfaction or preference aside, one must understand that the productivity or flexibility people experience working from homes is the product of the social capital built up through countless hours of employee interaction, conversations, meetings, and social engagements before the onset of the crisis. This could not have been possible through an online engagement only.
The employees of today had been part of a well entrenched corporate culture which could not have existed without physical interaction. As we continue to redefine the new workplace, will such online or work from home models actually continue to remain productive or beneficial or in fact will corporate cultures and communities erode over time without physical interaction? Will there be less mentorship and talent development? Has working from home succeeded only because it is viewed as temporary, not permanent?
The new work place will undoubtedly change; however, the office must continue to exist as part of that new workplace, although, to some extent its use may be redefined. Business models for different companies vary and so do their corresponding needs and requirements. More importantly every individual is different. Many have enjoyed this new experience; however others are fatigued by it. Where productivity of some of the employees has increased; for others it has declined. Many forms of virtual collaboration are working well; others are not.
The typical office might become a thing of the past however it cannot cease to exist for any of the employees. The unexpected experiment in remote working did surpass expectations because of the mass adoption of collaboration technologies. It also has reset expectations for the future because it opened up new possibilities for how much flexibility employees can have in choosing how and where to work. In fact, more companies are now considering flexible models. The future will be hybrid, but the proportions of work-from-home and in-office time will need to be balanced out. Physical interaction is needed, but the most critical issue is to learn the ideal frequency of this interaction in the new normal.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. The answer, different for every organisation, will be based on what talent is needed, which roles are most important, how much collaboration is necessary for excellence, and where offices are located today, among other factors. Even within an organisation, the answer could look different across geographies, businesses, and functions, so the exercise of determining what will be needed in the future will need input across real estate, human resources, technology, and the business.
Most companies will need their HR teams and strategic team leaders to rethink and outline their work needs with effectively identifying what can be done remotely, and which roles must be carried out in person, and to what degree.
Interestingly, this also redefines the HR strategy as for tasks that can be easily managed remotely talent sourcing may become easier, since the pool of available talent could have fewer geographical constraints. In fact, talented people could live in the cities of their choice, which may have a lower cost of living and proximity to people and places they love, while they still work for leading organisations. This approach could be a winning proposition for both employers and employees, with profound effects on the quality of talent an organisation can access and the cost of that talent.
These changes may not only improve how work is done but also lead to savings. Rent, capital costs, facilities operations, maintenance, and management make real estate the largest cost category outside of employee salaries for many organisations.
While some companies may have already started rethinking their workplace strategy with a focus toward cost reduction as well as taking advantage of alternative workplace models and reviewing approaches to managing space, most of the companies have yet to understand how these changes are redefining the new workplace.
As most of these companies ponder on the solution that fits them best, the new workplace changes that we can expect in the near future are similar for all. Technology will take the lead in the workplace transformation. The experience at work will become more digital: rather than the traditional pre-allocated workspaces there will be shared pools allowing app based booking of rooms and workspaces, as easy as a tap on a smartphone. Smart conference spaces, collaboration areas, and lounges (among other models) that inspire the collision of ideas and creativity will define the new workplace and the traditional hierarchal work space model will no longer be needed.
The new workplace is the new normal and still evolving. However, the challenge for leading companies in the evolving new workplace will be to protect what they cherish the most: their work ethics and corporate culture.