BusinessLeadership

The reshape of the working environment

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It’s already more than three months since the world came to a complete standstill. How did we change our habits and our way of working?

“Stay at home” became the main slogan for humankind. World leaders asked businesses, regardless of their size, to close their shops and employees to stay and work from home.

Although moving to this new approach has been rather mandated than requested. As the time passes it appears that it is trending towards being the new way of working and a norm expected by employees.

Most of the industries, especially in the corporate world, where this approach is applicable, consider extending it till next year or at least the last quarter of 2020.

Even though WFH cuts costs by downsizing expensive office spaces the workplace is not going away.

How would the perfect balance look like in the future? Could there be a hybrid work arrangement to compile the benefits from both worlds – collaborative office environment and flexibility of distributed work?

Best place for organisations to start would be to capture the value adding habits and skills employees have developed during the lockdown. Use them as a basis to develop a strategy for easing the partial or hybrid transition back into the physical workplace.

The current offices layout though won’t be the perfect match. This opens opportunities for redesign and reimaging of workplaces, where not quantity, but quality of the working space should lie at the heart of it.

The opening itself should be also done in a measured manner. Managers will be more focused on leading with empathy, safety of the working environment and keeping the productivity levels at the desired levels.

Leading with empathy

Not all businesses have the luxury of choice, but technology and service companies do, so this choice must be exercised responsibly.

There are employees with elderly family members or home-bound children, or employees who themselves have health issues. They all would be worried about returning back to the office.

Putting the employee first will help future-focused businesses take the right decision. As an example, a survey could be used as a quick and transparent tool for the management to understand which employees would rather return to the office and which ones can continue working from home. Some departments might feel the need to have some or all members working out of office.

Decisions made with empathy, leaving the business pressure aside for a while, will help create a satisfied and engaged team of employees.

Safety first

A healthy mix of smaller in-office staff and larger remote workforce will be the new reality for many companies. They will need to implement policies that work for both groups.

For the in-office population’s serenity and safety is important certain processes to be implemented. Some of these are regularly disinfecting every part of the office, cleaning ACs frequently, and doing temperature checks on staff.

Safety should go a longer way thinking also about social distancing once at the office: shifts, lunch breaks, employee movement to and within the office. What would be the procedure in place in case an employee gets infected with COVID-19? Clearly defined protocols for such a situation should be in place, so no time is wasted. From the logistics of quarantine, closing down the office building for disinfection, testing those who were in contact with the affected team member, to having a contingency plan in place so the business overall doesn’t get affected.

Importantly, the company needs to communicate to its people regularly. Even to the point of over-communication, all the steps that it is taking to ensure their safety.

Making remote work, work

Remote, flexible workspace was offered as a benefit in some companies and was looked at as the future of work. With the COVID-19 lockdown, the future is here. Working remotely is going to be the norm for a large section of the workforce for the foreseeable future. The current situation highlighted the challenges and advantages of working remotely as well.

Moving entire companies to work from home was seen as a primary need, but also a logistic and IT challenge that had to be accomplished within tight timelines. All this ensuring employees can work comfortably from home. Some of the initial issues were related to internet connectivity or dedicated, ergonomic working space at home.

The bigger challenge though for a remote workforce is collaboration.

To give employees clarity and to set boundaries all work-related virtual meetings and interactions should be pre-planned and shared. Online support should be also provided using any of the available technology tools to encourage interactions though formal and social channels.

Burnout, in fact, could be the bigger concern compared to hitting productivity numbers. To solve this potential issue employees should be encouraged to block certain number of hours each day to complete backlog, take breaks, socialize and then detach from work by switching off.

One of the positives of the lockdown has been the attention given to mental health. The pandemic, sheltering-at-home, and lack of direct interactions with others has led to an increase in anxiety and mental health issues.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that life is unpredictable and there is only so much we can plan and prepare for. Organisations need to be nimble and quick to react.

Policies that are grounded in empathy and are sustainable and scalable will help the company and employees face future challenges.