The Eight Realities of Post-Pandemic Office Life
Chicago, IL | June 28, 2021
There's still little consensus regarding what a post-pandemic office space requires. Beyond the obvious focus on health precautions, the perception of offices and how companies utilize them as resources has changed for many. Furthermore, leading research has come to contradictory conclusions regarding workers' and companies' office space desires; studies have also provided mixed results for the efficacy of work-from-home, in-office, and hybrid strategies. This may simply emphasize something we already know: there’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to office space.
Despite this lack of answers, it is time for companies to address some big questions: Should employees continue to work from home, or is in-office collaboration a priority? Should all employees shift to new, permanent, work-from-home and in-office strategies immediately, or is an adjustment period required? With extensive experience creating unique solutions for office buildouts big and small, the MBRE Workplace Strategies team has an unparalleled view of the twists and turns many offices will soon take. Below, we take a closer look at some of the return-to-work office themes and issues that companies need to consider.
1. A Hybrid Future
Some decisions will need to be made as restrictions fall and the push to return to pre-COVID-19 normalcy grows. To appease employees and workflows alike, most companies across many industry sectors will implement hybrid office solutions, at least near future. This will mean employees divide their workdays between the home and the office or even a third location.
Before the pandemic, many executives and business leaders felt that being physically present with coworkers was essential. Now that employees have proven that business can continue to be effective and productive even when working remotely, some companies won't find it easy to argue against a hybrid WFH life. For the companies that begrudgingly went WFH during the pandemic, there's now a new perk in their arsenals to use while recruiting if they're willing to accept it: flexible, WFH policies. One such tool for companies who want to utilize office space while appeasing WFH employees: the "dynamic workplace."
The new dynamic workplace is physically similar to pre-Covid “open space” concepts but doesn't force employees to adhere to five-day, in-office schedules. In a dynamic workplace, the health concerns caused by the proximity of typical open-office seating are negated by the reduced number of employees sharing space. In addition to the dynamic workplace, co-working spaces may find a niche inside hybrid solutions. The regional nuances of some companies may find that it is easier to allow some employees to travel to co-working spaces part-time than it is to force all employees to travel to a centralized office.
2. The Office as a Community
In the bright light of the past years' experience of work-from-home and hybrid working models, some companies are realizing the importance of the office in providing a common core of corporate identity and brand. Most companies are coming out of the pandemic with a greater appreciation of the office as a shared space for bonding and mentoring, a social epicenter that provides an unrecognized counterbalance to home and social life. There is remerging recognition in the power of place, and some companies can utilize the office to bind staff's energy and focus. Whether fully returning to the office or working via hybrid or work-from-home models, an office-focused business can help create a finite line between work and home, allowing employees to take full advantage of their own free time without the burdens or stresses of the job.
3. Workers Must Be Mentally Reassured
Fighting the physical nature of the coronavirus epidemic with face masks and hand sanitizer has become second nature. Still, some companies may come to realize that they've neglected the mental health aspects of returning to the office. Worker or staff psychology will be forefront in at least two significant paths right now:
- Making the office itself feel like a safe place to return to after a year and a half of staying home, and
- Ensuring transportation options, childcare, and other aspects of getting people back to the office feel safe enough to utilize.
Issues that were often outside of management's purview—usually covered by "out of office" messages and "not our responsibility" mentalities—are now at the forefront of office leaders and HR responsibilities as employees return. These issues are especially crucial for companies keen to retain experienced team members and recruit new, bright employees. To be clear, what was previously avoided or minimally addressed must be considered as we plan and execute new post-pandemic workplaces. While some of these considerations are pertinent mainly during the transition back to the office, work-from-home and hybrid office models will cause these aspects to become permanent considerations.
4. There Will be an Adjustment Period
As regional municipalities deem it safe and companies open the doors back up, there will be an interim period where things will not be quite back to "normal." Driven by remaining uncertainty, school or summer children's needs, as well as time to prepare, the consensus has focused on a late summer or fall 2021 return. (Note: the word "return" will be misleading for some. Some employers plan on bringing employees back as if nothing has changed. In contrast, other employees will show up to their old offices to find permanent changes to physical layout and schedules that did not exist pre-pandemic.) The anticipation leading up to these returns creates a default adjustment period that we believe will be a larger hurdle for smaller organizations–and may mean an extended adjustment period is required.
Before a company can actualize or plan a workplace endgame, managers and business leaders need to address communications and hybrid operations for both in-office and out-of-office staff. Will this take a week, months, a year? Good leaders and executives will take advantage of summer 2021 to examine and test what is important physically and operationally for their organization. The key is to be prepared and one step ahead of whatever your company's "normalcy" will look like going forward.
5. Can Companies Afford to Experiment?
Most companies will find it challenging to determine the amount of physical change to implement at their offices. Large companies with deep pockets have no problem testing or trying updates to their physical environments. Meanwhile, smaller companies simply cannot afford to experiment with office changes without a solid forecast of what benefits those changes might provide in the long run. This is where the MBRE Project Services team has been most useful: asking the questions that help a small company find a path from point A to point B.
For example, will seating layouts adhering to coronavirus social distancing efforts still be needed in 12-24 months? Will furniture have to be moved back or replaced to accommodate a company's full or partial return to the office? Will a new layout be needed to maximize the effectiveness of a company's new and unique hybrid work model? The importance of analysis and planning will benefit challenged organizations. Companies large and small that leverage experienced professionals' knowledge and apply what they've learned from those professionals to their future workplace will reap the most rewards.
6. Technology Can Blur the Lines of Separation
There will be an evolution of technology application linking the hybrid workplace where some staff is internal and others remote. This tech isn't new, and as returning to the hybrid workplace gathers momentum, companies and employees will prove to be pros at using it. But how this tech affects the future is still unknown.
How will the physical and technological structure of the office need to change to support the hybrid, tech-competent workforce effectively? Do staff need to make reservations to come to the office (even if they have a dedicated desk)? Does my team have a dedicated space? If not, how do I find my fellow team members? Can I use that conference room, or do I need a reservation? Prior to the pandemic, most offices were generally casual about questions like these, assuming thoughtful staff would manage peacefully. Together with some of the issues above, you can see that technology will play a new role in managing the workplace and engaging staff—regardless of who is working in and who's working outside the office at any given time.
7. New Challenges for HR and IT
Tactical issues are arising from the HR and IT infrastructure side. While most companies have been effective with the abrupt transition to work from home—maintaining operations through the "emergency" portion of the pandemic—what has yet to be seen is how this will continue long term. Proving compliance with network security or viably tracking man-hours when timecards are required are just two examples of the HR and corporate IT functions being examined. Will more technology save the day, and will companies find themselves expanding HR and IT departments to accommodate companies' growing needs? What is clear here is that HR and IT needs are no longer tangential to the larger physical office planning, design, and management. IT and HR need to be fully integrated from planning to daily management.
8. ...So What do we Know?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for the return to the office. Agility, flexibility, and adaptability will be needed between the initial returns and the "new normal." Every company needs to look internally and brainstorm what is uniquely essential operationally, culturally, and financially to their business mission. Once these basic parameters are established, companies can begin to plan for and manage the transition and return better, stronger, and more productive!
Below are links to articles with perspectives from other experts. While not everyone agrees with each other, voices that support and oppose a return to the office will help you highlight issues that are important to your organization. As you read these articles, keep in mind that the media focus has largely been on big companies and high-profile industries. While some of this content is broadly applicable, objectivity and local sensitivities should remain in focus for the sake of your individual needs, operations, culture, and, most importantly, pocketbook. Ultimately, if you're left with an arsenal of ideas but feel lost when it comes to how to apply them to your specific situation, you can always reach out to the MBRE Workplace Strategies team for a consultation.
What we’ve learned after one month of operating a hybrid office, 07/06/21
Quartz uses recent research to outline 11 important lessons companies need to learn about the hybrid office.
The Office as we know it is over - and that's a good thing, 01/21/21
Fast Company posits three positive outcomes of a "post-office future": workplaces become more equitable, cities and towns become more livable, and companies become more productive.
A brief history of workplace design and where it might be headed next, 05/29/20
Archdaily examines the journey of modern office design before predicting how designers will respond to COVID-19 by "combing the best elements of the past with the promise of the future to give us healthier and more dynamic workplaces…"
Here's What the Research Says About Work-From-Home And Productivity, 05/27/21
Bisnow dissects the recent work-from-home surveys done by academics, market research firms, tech companies, and employees.
Goodbye open office-hello dynamic workplace, 09/12/20
Wall Street Journal highlights the distinctions between the open office and dynamic workplace. Physically similar, a hybrid schedule that doesn't require employees to be in the office five days a week is at the core philosophy of the dynamic workplace.
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