A good reminder: the most valuable asset of any organization are the people, not the office. At this moment, people have “gotten back to business,” albeit remotely. While remote working has its own challenges, feeling safe and confident in the workplace is not one of them. As we consider moving back to the office, one of the most important considerations will be the psychological challenges of feeling safe and confident.
Short-term planning (Circumstantial and Expedient): During this phase you will be addressing the “here and now,” the transition back to the office in uncertain circumstances and exploring what it means to be back.
Survey employees. Years ago, the famous management consultant, Peter Drucker said: “If you want to know what people are doing, ask them.” Surveying employees informs company leadership on the pulse of the organization, as well as ideas about how to best return. These surveys could go further and give management a true read on how well the remote work experience (experiment) has worked for people and how to improve it.
Plan who comes back first, and why. Be thoughtful about how best to use the return to your best benefit. Are the first people back a creative team that needs the connection and collaboration to make them more productive? Or is it a “Back Office” team to prepare the space for the next set of returning employees? Are there employees with young children that could be more productive at home until after schools open?
Test the office capacity. See how many people could safely return to the office (observing current CDC guidelines) to understand what your maximum capacity might be, and compare that to your belief about who needs to return.
Recognize that even at this stage the solution is not “one size fits all.” Use data about your business needs as well as your employees’ thoughts and resources to make better decisions about your operations, space, technology and people.
Design and use a change management and communications program. Returning to the office will certainly be a changed environment. Enlist and help employees navigate the uncertainty and use the return as a tool to build confidence and engagement.
Reflect. Use this time to step back and see what problems really need to be solved and what opportunities are available to you.
Using an undifferentiated number of people as the criteria for returning to the office. Companies are arbitrarily suggesting 10 – 20% of staff returning initially. If your company has 50 people, 10% is 5 people – five people in a fifty-person office will still feel lonely and disconnected, without the benefits of being at home. (Anecdotal evidence out of Asia has shown that employees are experiencing this phenomenon.)
Doing “what everyone else is doing.” Particularly if they are in a different business. If you don’t know that it works for you, use other people’s real experiences, and / or find out what does. Avoid using generic data, and wherever possible, use your own. Avoid being influenced by “truth by repeated assertion” i.e., “If I hear enough times, it must be true”
Falling prey to “best practices” descriptions. Especially since currently there are no best practices (except CDC guidelines).
Take some time before you change any of the physical environment, if possible. Whatever solutions are used at the beginning will likely need to change and evolve. Some early decisions may be very expensive to undo in the future.
Test multiple options for seating and teaming. Base these on who will be first to return and why. Look at options for how you might increase the number of employees over time and evaluate their needs and challenges. Mapping your return ideas on your existing office plan will reveal potential challenges (and this is not an exhaustive list!).
More than 20 years after 9/11 we are still taking off our shoes at the airport. Be careful and thoughtful about the structures and solutions you put in place, as they are likely to remain much longer than anticipated.
As organizations move into adapting (and adopting), mid-term planning is the next phase to address: What are the real issues that we are trying to solve in order to move forward?
Companies and organizations may find that much of the work that people did in-office was done by default, and could be executed more effectively at home, sparking new approaches to the workplace.
Take advantage of employee data, productivity measurements and engagement surveys to help craft an approach that supports both the organization and the employees.
There will likely be other non-physical considerations to address the changes. How will the operational context change? Can people continue to feel and be safe? Do we have the right resources in place to move to the next step? What are the other requirements that we need to add/subtract? What did we learn that we can apply or adapt to the medium-term solutions?
Working though this phase will allow you to make an intentional plan for how to operate more effectively in the future and sets up the template for the long-term evolution of the workplace.
The pandemic has resulted in, among other more dire consequences, the worldwide “experiment” of remote work. Surprisingly to some, most “knowledge-work” organizations have been able to continue working – and in some cases more productively than before. As a result, there is a groundswell for the continuation of remote work as a plausible future state.
Despite the fact that there is so much discourse on about remote work and the resulting notion that offices may disappear, and it is still true that we are human, social beings, and the need for human contact and interaction will persist - we miss our colleagues and friends.
Whatever the outcome of the new office, the concept of the office will likely continue. We need it for a sense of belonging, for camaraderie and collaboration; we need it to build and sustain culture, and we need it to help support our human nature.
What that new office will look and operate like is unclear. But what is clear is that we have in front of us an enormous opportunity. For now, the uncertainty of our time makes this look difficult, but the challenge and chance to re-craft a safer, more supportive, more diverse, inclusive, and more effective workplace still ours to imagine and build.