We’re heading back to the office. Now what?

The New York Times reported that as of April 25 over 140 million people have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, and that providers are administering, on average, almost 3 million doses per day. Those are incredible numbers, especially when comparing to the rest of the world (only Chile, Israel, and the U.A.E. have a better ratio). This means that we’ll be back to (a new) normal very, very soon. But what does this mean for our jobs? Does this mean the end of remote work? Are we going back to the office? Or are we doing a hybrid of both. How did our time in quarantine shape new habits? We’re facing a brave, perhaps even better, new world, and we’re here to answer all the questions you might have and then some. Let’s dive in.

The Hybrid Model is Here to Stay

You’ve seen the endless memes and jokes about meetings that should be emails. You’ve heard all about how traveling across state lines and countries feels unnecessary given the existence of platforms like Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Evercast. You've even grown accustomed to doing without those long and exasperating commutes. While we may not have always enjoyed being stuck at home, we also became aware of the advantages. Now that we’re invited to head back to the office, many people are saying “not so fast.”

A recent Envoy survey revealed that workers’ attitudes towards their jobs and workplaces have changed drastically during the last year. The number one takeaway is that nearly half of all surveyed don’t want to return to the daily grind, instead showcasing a desire for a hybrid work arrangement, even in industries that usually require on-site work like healthcare, construction, and retail. In fact, 41% of workers are willing to take a lower-paying job if it means working remotely at least half of the time. More surprisingly, 47% admitted they’d be willing to quit their jobs if that possibility isn’t even on the table. 

Sounds crazy, but it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? We were forced into this social and professional experiment and the results are in— a hybrid life ‘promises’ the best of both worlds: the connections and experiences of in-person interactions with the flexibility and freedom of working remotely. 

One of the companies driving this new way of thinking about work is General Motors. The Detroit-based company announced recently that it’ll give its 155 thousand global employees the flexibility to choose between working from home or in the office, in an open-ended system that CEO Mary Barra described as “work appropriately.” Coinbase is going the same route, with the vision of CEO Brian Armstrong being ‘one floor of office space in 10 cities, rather than 10 floors of office space in one city’. Similarly, Dropbox said it would become a “virtual first” company by October 2021, and plans on launching collaborative spaces called Dropbox Studios in locations where it currently has offices. The company will also embrace “non-linear workdays,” which allows workers to design their own schedules. Other giants embracing similar positions include Twitter, Shopify, Novartis, Spotify, and Zillow, to name just a few. 

The above examples also put to bed one particular worry: the lack of safety many feel about returning to an office. In the aforementioned Envoy survey, many workers (in particular people of color and Gen Z) claim that they’d feel safer if employers mandated workers to get a Covid-19 vaccine before being allowed to return to the office. Now, most workplaces will allow workers to make that decision for themselves.

Of course, not every company is embracing the fully remote or hybrid work model. A notable example is Amazon, who recently issued a statement to employees saying: "Our plan is to return to an office-centric culture as our baseline. We believe it enables us to invent, collaborate, and learn together most effectively." IBM isn’t fully on board with remote working either, having announced that 80% of the workforce will need to work at least three days a week in the office. 

Whatever the case— be it 100%, 50% or 20% of remote work— the bottom line is that a hybrid future offers the best chance to manage the realities of a lengthy pandemic while retaining some of the freedom so many gained over the past year. But for that to happen successfully, thoughtful changes will have to be made. 

What Will the Workplace Look Like?

Aside from boosting disinfecting practices and making Purell widely available, there may not be that many radical changes in a physical sense. After all, most companies have been shifting towards ampler work spaces that are already set up to accommodate social distancing. By focusing on modifying concepts like benching, neighborhoods, and breakout spaces, it’s not entirely unreasonable to assume that future workplaces will look similar to what they are today. 

That said, more and more the goal will be to instigate collaboration over solo work. Implementing that mentality means more complex logistics in order to ensure that the right team members are where they need to be at all times. This puts additional pressures on managers who will now have to juggle employees working in very different environments (perhaps even different time zones) at any given time.

Emerging New Trends

We already spoke of the increasing and widespread acceptance of the hybrid work model, but there are several new workplace trends emerging. Let’s take a look at some of them:

More Gig Workers

A recent Gartner survey revealed that a significant number of companies are looking at the replacement of full-time workers with contingent workers. This comes on the heels of organizations shifting their philosophies to include a more flexible approach to work practices. Well, the truth is that utilizing more gig/freelance workers gives employers greater workforce management flexibility. Of course, this also means rethinking how HR addresses performance management systems, hiring practices, and benefit eligibility. There’s a lot to figure out, but the rise of gig workers seems inevitable. 

Larger Talent Pool

The point above has another implication: companies have realized that the location of their employees may not matter as much. In the U.S., we’re starting to see this trend emerging with several workers choosing to leave high-costing rent cities and moving to smaller cities or other states where rent may be significantly cheaper, but we can even go a step further. When recruiting, companies are now considering workers from around the world. The talent pool is larger and that’s to the benefit of all. What we’re doing is using globalization to further democratize the workplace, which in turn will lead to a richer tapestry of cultures and a more intellectually stimulating work environment.

Touchless Technology

Covid-19 has been eye-opening at many levels, chief among them is how careless we’ve been when using common spaces. From elevator buttons and door handles to check-in kiosks, we never thought twice about the implications. Well, going forward companies will be far more health conscious. In fact, many have already started to adopt new measures and practices that support their workers and customers, with touchless tech becoming one of the highest priorities. Some of the tech in question includes touchless check-ins for employees and visitors using no contact sign-in apps, infrared sensors, virus proof break rooms, automated entrances, and employee QR codes. This is set to become the new norm in offices across the globe. 

What Else Will the Future Bring?

If we take a longer look into the future, we can anticipate the following ideas staking their claim in the modern work environment. 

Office Footprint Reduction

A study by Grant Thornton found that over a third of U.K. mid-sized companies expect to reduce office space, in some cases by 50%. The same is true for companies like Coinbase (as we saw previously). The idea here is to shift the mentality of ‘the office as a regular workspace’ to ‘the office as a means to stimulate collaboration and invention.’ Inevitably, we’ll start seeing smaller and more organizationally efficient offices.

Emphasis on Virtual Culture

Over the past year we’ve had countless online meetings and learned quickly the importance of healthy virtual practices. As convenient as the solution may be, working virtually has its fair share of drawbacks, like fostering misunderstandings and lack of camaraderie, decreasing visibility and life-work balance, and increasing the risk of cyber-security issues. As we move towards a more hybrid approach to work, companies will adapt to these realities and offer workers a safer, more thriving environment. Creating a positive virtual culture implies, among others, investing in technologies that allow for proper remote working, strengthening workers’ emotional intelligence, practicing proactive communication, praising good work, and making sure to ask experts when in doubt. We might even see the creation of a position that focuses solely on these issues.

Focus on the Health of Workers

A significant number of remote workers have found it challenging to strike a positive work-life balance. Working from home can make it hard for some people to switch off from work mode. In fact, they may feel the need to work even harder to prove their contribution and show management they are not slacking off just because they’re home. That, in turn, casts a spotlight on a rising concern: burnout. Going forward, companies will expand their involvement in the lives of their workers by setting up an employee assistance program. The objective here is to increase mental health support as well as overall well-being. PwC, for example, has been ahead of the curve on this, offering weekly seminars with Laya Healthcare that cover topics ranging from coping with media and daily news to nutrition advice. They are also providing one-on-one support with psychologists, parenting experts, and dieticians. 

Ease Back Into the Post-Pandemic Workplace

For many, going back into the office might give ‘back-to-school’ flashbacks. You might be nervous about daily person-to-person interaction. You might be wondering what the workplace will look like. You may even be concerned about how you fit within a new environment. It’s really important to put your best foot forward when returning to work, so let us give you a few things to think about: 

Be Kind

The pandemic made us kinder. No, really! Bring that same energy into a post-Covid-19 world. You’re in control of how you manage your surroundings, so remind yourself to lead by example and don’t allow the type of behavior that was common in so many work environments before. Professional decorum is here to stay and to the benefit of all.

Prepare to Be More Structured

You’ll once again be physically accessible to co-workers, clients, and bosses, which means the days of carefully scheduled online meetings will be over. You’ll probably have to be more flexible and at the whim of other people’s schedules, so plan to be more structured and communicate more efficiently. Your ability to focus and prioritize will be critical. And again, remind yourself to be kinder. It’ll be an adjustment for all of us.

Work on Your Emotional Intelligence

As detailed above, companies will start emphasizing emotional intelligence more, so it’s a good time to start thinking about refining those skills. A few basic things you can do includes exploring authenticity and what that means to you, building self-awareness about your strengths, weaknesses, and personality traits, having a curious mind and developing new skills and knowledge, building new relationships and improving upon the ones you already have, and being more understanding during stressful situations for both yourself and others.

Aside from the above you can also think about reincorporating the old maximum of “dress to impress” into your vocabulary, especially after a year of being more casual around the house, and exploring feelings of gratitude. Studies have shown that there are multiple benefits like boosting brain-function, increasing patience, and improving overall well-being.

Key Takeaways

The big legacy of the pandemic will be the creation of leaner companies, structurally and organizationally. Companies will be utilizing more contract and gig workers with fewer staff roles, promoting flexible hours and strategies, and in some cases, remote work will continue in some capacity. It may even become a permanent working style in many cases. Simultaneously, we’ll see a significant shift towards healthier environments for workers, with an emphasis on emotional intelligence, good communication practices, and the development of new company cultures.

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