Experts Imagine a More Flexible Workplace in the Wake of COVID-19

Industry experts weigh in on how, suddenly, a more flexible workplace strategy doesn’t seem so far-reaching, even for the most traditional enterprises.

For the last decade, a majority of the workforce spent their years walking into the office, sitting down in their cubicle, and glancing over their shoulder to make sure the boss knows well and good they’re present and productive. Executive teams were convinced that company success was measured by how many butts were in seats every day as workplace strategies consisted of one workstyle: permanent, assigned cubes. Working from home was considered to be a luxury, only to be used in dire situations like snow days. 

Another large group of working professionals experienced a more flexible work environment, in places like startups and tech companies, where co-founders granted their staff unlimited paid time off and working from home was an option when needed. But even with more flexibility, many folks still had assigned seats and managers preferred in-office work over remote.

As for fully remote workers, in February of 2020 they made up only 3.4% of the US workforce.

Fast forward a few weeks later, as we all know, and remote work arrived in force. Companies across the globe quickly pivoted hundreds of thousands if not millions to work remotely, all in a matter of days. 

How are companies handling the transition today? And what will the office look like when we transition back?

While there's no way of knowing what the future holds, we talked to our network of experts about what they  believe the transition back to the office will look like.

Graph showing dramatic increase in remote work
People working from home has risen from 3.4% in the U.S. in February to closer to 100% in March, April, and beyond.

How companies are handling the COVID-19 workplace transition today

1. “Non-essential” employees are working remotely

As many of us well know, most non-essential employees immediately transitioned to work from home. This meant a whole new world for people not accustomed to working from home. One of the workplace consultants we spoke to said, “This is such an upheaval of so many social norms all at the same time.” Parents have been forced to work while also caring for their children (if you’re one of them, print out our workplace coloring book to help). Partners, roommates, and family members in close quarters have been put to the ultimate test in whether or not their relationships can sustain such an extended period of isolation together.

“Working from home is not a childcare solution.”

People around the globe started purchasing home office supplies, including computer monitors and ergonomic office chairs. Some companies like Shopify have even given employees a $1,000 stipend to support these investments -- talk about a great way to support workplace experience at home! LinkedIn’s newsfeed has an endless supply of tips to work remotely, like the suggestion to wear real pants and set up a routine to keep yourself focused and motivated. I personally enjoyed the suggestions from industry friend Morgan Mosher of T3 Advisors, who had some great recommendations on video conferencing lighting and backgrounds.

quote: upheaval in social norms all at the same time

2. Facilities teams are keeping an eye on the office

Just because we’re out of the office doesn’t mean our trusted facilities colleagues aren’t. There is sanitization to manage, bills to be paid, mail to be sorted. Facilities managers are walking their office buildings to ensure that the space remains safe and secure and issues that require immediate maintenance are taken care of, even with the rest of their team at home.

After the 5.7 magnitude earthquake in Utah mid-March, one facilities manager of a large tech conglomerate had to go on site to survey their offices for damage. After all, we’ll head back to the workplace eventually -- and facilities managers are there to ensure we all have buildings to go back to. 

While some workplace projects are put on hold, the in-office downtime provides a great opportunity to get caught up on what a revised workplace strategy looks like once this is over.

3. IT teams are supporting the transition with technology and troubleshooting

For companies with more flexible work strategies, employees were already enabled to work remotely without too much fuss. For other companies that have on-premise resources, IT teams have been put to the test getting everyone up and running remotely.

Employees at one financial organization were equipped with only desktop computers vs. laptops, meaning their IT team had to remotely migrate their data to laptops and deliver them to each individual. Many companies have on-premise servers that require a VPN setup to access files. This is the first time many of those VPNs have been tested on such a broad scale, resulting in lots of troubleshooting to secure bandwidth and access for all who need it. 

A lot of employees have never used VoIP softphones before, accustomed to hardwired desk phones. One customer of ours had to ensure everyone had access to Dialpad, along with Microsoft Teams and Slack for chat and Zoom for video conferencing.

Global downloads of business apps have risen 90% since 2019.
According to AppAnnie, 62 million business apps were downloaded across iOs and Google Play globally during the week of March 14th, up 45% from the week before and up 90% from 2019. Via TechCrunch

This transition for many companies across the globe has been one of the largest change management initiatives people were forced into with little notice or preparation.

4. Culture teams are maintaining communication in an isolated and distributed environment

Employee experience gets a heck of a lot harder when everyone is distributed, or working remotely. All that tech that IT set up starts to become the foundation on which people ops and HR can build meaningful communication programs to keep people informed. From setting up specific channels in Slack for #Coronavirus-Communications or holding company all-hands where people can submit questions, leadership teams with their HR representatives have to be over-communicative now more than ever about what the short term future holds. 

One Office Manager talked about their team’s push to hold office hours for their company even if they can’t be there physically. Using a Google Meet Hangout calendar reminder, people can hop in and out as they please, just like they would in the office. They also started testing Remo, a software that enables remote employees to collaborate via virtual office.

Example of virtual office from Remo.co
Remo lets you build a virtual office that you can move around and have either group or one to one conversations with colleagues. Via Remo.co

Remote coffee chats, happy hours, and lunches have dotted our calendars in an effort to maintain the social aspect the office provides. One Boston-based customer talked about how they’re putting a lot of effort into virtual social programming. This can be a huge culture saver so people don’t feel completely disconnected during social distancing. Looking for ideas? Try playing virtual board games with Jackbox in small groups, or start an open mic night on Zoom.

One thing is for sure, everyone we spoke to said we’ll all be so grateful to have the office back. Humans are social creatures, whether introvert or extrovert. We need human connection to maintain normalcy and exhaust social energy.

How companies will transition back to the office after COVID-19

1. Business continuity plans will evolve with the help of mobility programs and flexible work strategies

Everyone got a full test run of their business continuity plans with this shift to remote work. For those facilities and IT teams who already had a more mobile workforce, they had a much easier time transitioning their entire company or office.

When your workplace is set up for employees to constantly move around, they have to be ready to work from a laptop at any time and in any place. With this in mind, many people we spoke with talked about how this could shift more traditional organizations to evolve several years faster than they were planning to be able to service this type of workplace strategy. 

Moving people from desktops to laptops, having departments share clusters of desks vs. having assigned seats (with proper hygiene), and allowing employees the choice to work from home when they want to means that work can continue whenever, wherever. 

Those with more traditional technology and resources will likely want to continue tweaking and evolving their strategies to make sure they’re better set up for scenarios like this in the future. “In the event there is a need in the future, that can be rolled out with less reserve and/or effort since there is now a roadmap for it.”

2. The minimum viable work environment will be redefined as we know it

Millions of people all over the globe just proved that we don’t need a physical office, a fancy cubicle, or even multiple monitors to get our work done well. Workplace standards, even at the most traditional of organizations, are going to shift and what people need to get their work done will be redistributed. Note that I purposely wrote “redistributed” and not “taken away” -- these culture shifts point out that we can use a different, more modern set of resources to accomplish our daily tasks. We can’t simply take the old resources away and tell people to do more with less. It’s simply that the resources will look a lot different and this experience is making us all more aware of that.

If our individual resources were pooled together for more shared purposes, what would the workplace look like? Reducing private cubicles to shared desks could result in swankier soft seating areas for collaboration and quieter, more comfortable individual pockets for focus time. With proper hygiene, the office could look a lot more engaging and creative, with variety to suit every individual and their unique tasks.

3. Working from home/telecommuting could finally be an option for everyone

While a lot of younger organizations in bigger cities allow employees to work from home when they want to, some more traditional organizations see remote work as a loss in productivity. 

“One thing that will shape the future perspective on this is research on employee productivity while working remotely,” the CoreNet Global pop up webinar on March 24th recounted. With employers having no choice but to allow remote work to happen, they’re witnessing how productivity continues to thrive. If they haven’t already, executives will realize they need to evolve their work style strategies with mobility programs and provide employees the added benefit of working from home when they want to.

4. We’ll all be more aware of hygiene and germs

Keep that hand sanitizer on you, because everyone and everything is going to be a lot cleaner when we head back to the office. Office managers will schedule more professional cleaning during the week and each one of us will be spending twenty seconds washing our hands throughout the day.

More importantly, executives, facilities, and HR will need to have an airtight strategy for how to handle making employees feel comfortable in the office again, especially when some of them may have preexisting conditions that make them extremely vulnerable in situations like these. Some organizations are not going to give employees the time and information they need, and that’s going to create a real conflict when they expect people to waltz back in but people don’t feel safe. Health and safety should be a number one priority.

Longer term, employees will be hyper aware during the cold and flu season and more will tend to stay home when they’re sick (another benefit of a solid WFH policy!). Companies providing flu shot clinics will likely see 100% attendance rates. There will be a rise in the group effort to keep shared things clean, from desks to countertops to office gym equipment.

Workplace experience strategist says that while its great to have the choice to work from home, the office is a place you go for the experience.

5. We’ll rediscover our appreciation for the office

If you’re like me, you want to write your workplace a letter saying sorry for all the bad things you ever said about it. I can’t wait to get back there. Not that I don’t love being cooped up in a studio apartment with my significant other, but it’s going to feel great to get out of here finally.

From talking to customers and friends in the industry, it sounds like we’re all on the same page.

A workplace strategist we spoke to said that while it’s great to have the choice to work from home, “The office is a place you go for the experience.” There’s a huge benefit that you can’t get when you work from home and once this is all over, we’ll be so grateful to have the choice to go back.

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Looking for ways to make your office safer for everyone during COVID-19? Get tips on how to maintain a healthy office culture through both cleanliness and communication here.

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