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Doing business in the age of COVID-19 has required everyone from entry-level employees to senior executives to discard pre-pandemic norms.
Commutes have been replaced by a shuffle from the bed to the couch and Zoom meetings have replaced in-person discussions. Some changes have been for the better; others have not. All of them forced HR professionals and company leaders to think creatively about ways to keep employees connected despite our physical distance from one another.
As vaccine distribution ramps up and a return to the office seems imminent, we can expect even more changes. A post-COVID workplace report recently published by Margulies Perruzzi and Kotter explores how leaders can keep up with the rapid pace of change while navigating lingering pandemic uncertainty, addressing mental health concerns and maintaining a strong office culture.
Successfully leading a company through this pandemic requires taking a hard look at how the work-from-home model has impacted psychological well-being and workplace norms. In creating plans to return to the office, leaders should keep in mind three key ideas: maintain flexibility, tap into a “thrive” mode and reinvigorate company culture. These guiding principles can help companies navigate the post-pandemic world with confidence.
The transition to work-from-home demonstrated the importance of corporate agility. A new set of rules took effect as soon as employees were asked to stay home; leaders often supported flexible schedules to allow time for extra caregiving or homeschooling responsibilities while “work clothes” and “leisure clothes” became one and the same.
Undoubtedly, work-from-home flexibility comes with caveats. Our working hours may be more flexible, but they are also often longer. A July 2020 study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the average workday has increased by almost 50 minutes since last March. People are powering up their computers earlier in the morning and shutting them down later at night because they no longer have long commutes or social engagements to create a buffer between home and work.
The challenges unique to work-from-home should make flexibility even more important to leaders as they prepare for a transition back to the office. Some employees may prefer to remain remote, others may want to still spend some time at home and still others will return to the office completely. According to Fortune’s March 2021 poll of more than 2,600 American adults, 18% would like to remain remote, 42% prefer a hybrid model and 36% hope to work in person full time.
This data suggests that our future workplace will look different than our pre-pandemic one. Leaders should turn their attention to the logistics of a partially or completely remote workforce. A critical decision will be whether to downsize on office space. Our report details four workplace models for leaders to consider as they begin planning for a post-pandemic workplace:
This model assumes that 100% of a workforce will be returning to office. It allows spontaneous social interaction but prioritizes individual seating over collaboration space. Health concerns may require that square footage increase to accommodate this model.
This model assumes that 25% of the workforce will remain remote and 75% will return to on-site work. It supports a social work culture for those in the office and can offer flexibility if a quarter of the seats remain unassigned but requires that remote workers be appropriately equipped to maintain productivity without getting burned out.
This model assumes 50% of the workforce will be in the office at a given time. Unassigned seats allow employees to easily shift from remote to in-person work without wasting real estate, providing greater flexibility.
This model assumes only 25% of the workforce would be on-site at a given time. It may be a good fit for companies whose employees are often on the road or prefer to work at home.
Each model comes with its own financial and logistical considerations, especially if more space is needed to accommodate social distancing. The below graphic demonstrates how the four models compare to one another in terms of cost and space:
In this situation, the following is assumed: a seven-year lease term; $50 per square foot in rent, increasing $1 per square foot per year; $75 per square foot tenant TI exposure after landlord allowance; and $50 for tenant furniture and IT costs. The following remote IT costs are also assumed: $1,000 one-time fee per employee for remote work set-up; $600 per year as a remote work stipend per employee; 3% inflation on one-time home set-up and stipend; and 10% assumed employee turnover, requiring additional remote set-up costs.
It may take several weeks or even months to determine the best fit, both financially and culturally. Remaining flexible during the process will help leaders find what really works, even if it looks different from before the pandemic.
Tap Into a “Thrive” Mode
The abrupt transition to work-from-home threw professional and personal lives up in the air. A pervasive feeling of losing control pushed many into a “survive” mode, triggering emotions like fear and anxiety. This physiological and psychological shift into high gear is defined by unconscious reactions. Our bodies have evolved over thousands of years to quickly address threats, often without fully processing a situation.
Sustained anxiety and rapid problem-solving can quickly lead to burnout as our bodies become exhausted from the constant perception of danger. The side effects are already painfully evident; productivity declined 5.1% in the last quarter of 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ recent report, which is the largest quarterly drop in almost 40 years.
Flipping the motivation from survive to “thrive” involves shifting away from spotting “dangers” to focusing on potential opportunities. The thrive response is an opportunity-seeking radar associated with increased energy, passion for the task at hand and collaboration. All of these characteristics are essential to productive employees. Tapping into these traits, and creating the condition for them to arise naturally, can help inspire and optimize a workforce.
Start at the ground floor when it comes to helping employees thrive. Collecting input from every level early on will allow leaders to make informed decisions and help employees feel involved in the process so they are not thrown back into survival mode when yet another round of changes to the work environment are announced. Engaging employees will shift the burden of responsibility from one to many such that everyone has a stake in the change and can unite behind it.
Corporate-level thriving involves leveraging individual passions to create a team of employees who voluntarily elevate the firm. People who enjoy what they are doing will inevitably perform better than those who don’t. Take inventory of everything your workforce has to offer, then ask employees what gives them energy. Channel this energy into something that can make your company stronger.
Reinvigorate Company Culture
What once characterized workplace culture — that unique combination of shared values and expectations that define an office’s emotional and relational environment — is hard to translate through a computer screen. Many HR leaders nonetheless turned to virtual happy hours during the early months of the pandemic to retain some level of social interaction amongst employees. Initially, the novelty of these events made them successful. But as the months wore on, our desire to gather virtually dissipated.
The result has been a significant decline in office culture. Whereas meetings can easily be shifted online, social office activities like gathering in the kitchen for lunch or heading out to drinks after work have found no good replacements. The opportunity to chat with colleagues on a personal, less informal level has all but disappeared.
It’s tempting to ask whether the social aspects of office culture are better left behind. After all, what does happy hour have to do with a bottom line? As it turns out, a lot. Even the casual deskside chat help foster collaboration and empathy between colleagues. Non-work-related conversations are essential to fostering trust. A team built on collaboration, empathy and trust will always outperform one plagued by division, apathy and mistrust.
If your company’s culture was lagging even before the pandemic, a transition back to the office can be a great opportunity to build it up. Start working with HR to facilitate socially distanced gatherings. If your office building has an accessible rooftop or courtyard, consider using those spaces so everyone feels comfortable. Encourage those you work with to celebrate one another’s successes.
Considering how to make office spaces more collaborative is also key. “Flexible” offices, which can be used as a senior employee’s office when they are present and as a conference room when they are not, can be great a great way to add collaborative areas. Pull up the window shades to let in as much natural light as possible. A study from Cornell University has shown that natural light boosts productivity and offers health benefits.
Paired with a thriving workforce and flexibility, a positive office culture can position a company for post-pandemic success. Just remember — change is intimidating, but leaders can allay fears.