Although the first shipments of COVID-19 vaccines have given us many reasons to be optimistic, the surge of coronavirus cases in the past month has caused many organizations to push back their timeline for reopening the workplace.
While safety is still their highest priority, many leaders are rethinking their long-term workplace strategy, using this as an opportunity to embrace more flexible ways of working.
These insights from top executives give us a glimpse at what the workplace could be like in the coming year.
Emphasizing the importance of the physical space
Although Google CEO Sundar Pichai recently announced the company is delaying its return to work until September, he has taken a strong stance on the importance of the physical work environment.
In a detailed email to employees, he said he expects employees to work at least three days a week in the office.
“We are testing a hypothesis that a flexible work model will lead to greater productivity, collaboration, and well-being,” he wrote in the email.
Employees will have the option to reserve desks or book spaces for larger group gatherings outdoors.
“In-office collaboration will be just as important to Google’s future as it’s been to our past,” he said in the email.
Bringing employees back to work with safety protocol
In New South Wales, Australia, the government recently eased its restrictions to allow people to return to the office after the holidays with some guidelines in place.
Kevin George, the executive manager for Australia’s largest office tower landlord, said they have implemented new protocols, including additional cleaning and distancing in high-capacity areas.
Employees might have to arrive at staggered times or wait longer for elevators, for instance, but the building is using additional signage and concierges to direct people.
“A lot of tenants are still thinking about how to be flexible around start and finish times,” he said in a Financial Review article.
Other companies have returned with safety measures that included reducing capacity and returning employees to the office in phases, based on their role and how critical it is for them to work on-site.
At Red Hat Software, small groups of up to five people have begun to gather for face-to-face meetings in person.
Prior to returning, they are asked to watch a safety video and complete a wellness assessment, said Jeffery Buck, Red Hat’s senior global facilities strategies specialist, in a recent webinar.
Companies are also factoring in employees’ preferences in addition to the nature of their role.
Intuit reopened offices in several cities and allowed employees to decide whether they wanted to return.
Many who returned said they experienced difficulty working productively at home or missed connecting with others, said Elicia Young, workplace services program manager at Intuit, in the same webinar.
But when they arrived, they found fewer than half the people who said they were planning to come in actually did. So, while it’s necessary to limit capacity and follow safety guidelines now, employees may have to wait a little longer to get back to the same level of collaboration they want.
See how our return-to-work solutions help you reconfigure workplaces, manage wellness checks, and more.
Implementing a virtual-first workplace strategy
As a leader in collaborative workplace technology, Dropbox’s mission is to design a more enlightened way of working. If the company is going to continue to provide solutions that solve the problems of the future workplace, its own approach to workplace strategy needs to be innovative.
This is why CEO Drew Houston is building what he calls the “virtual-first workplace” by combining the best elements of remote work and the in-person experience.
“The vast majority of our employees don’t want to go back to exactly the way things were before,” he said in an interview with LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman on the Masters of Scale podcast. “I think that both the remote-only choice and the ad-hoc, ‘everybody come to the office when you feel like it’, the two main options, have major issues.”
In an entirely remote workplace, he said, we lose the ability to connect with others in person, which is part of our biological wiring. It’s more difficult to build a team and maintain strong relationships.
The second alternative, allowing employees to choose when they come to the office with no formal guidelines, makes it more difficult for employees to have meaningful collaboration if they never know when they’ll see their colleagues.
No one wants to commute for an hour to sit in an office space that’s mostly empty.
The virtual-first workplace gives employees flexibility with some structure.
For instance, Houston said, there will be “core collaboration hours” when employees are expected to be available regardless of their time zone.
In addition to the company’s existing offices, it will lease collaborative spaces called studios where smaller groups of employees could meet. The studios would allow the company to hire more employees who live outside of the major cities where its offices are located.
Team leaders could decide how often employees need to meet in person depending on the work they do, but the company would have some designated in-person events every year.
Dropbox has extended its company-wide remote work policy through June 2021 and is preparing to deploy its “virtual-first” workplace strategy after that.
Making workplaces more like hotels (or in hotels)
Although research shows the majority of employees want to return to the office, they will expect more from the workplace experience now that they’ve become accustomed to working at home.
Enter the rise of ‘corporatality’ — bringing elements of the hospitality industry into the workplace.
Company leaders are already thinking about what services they can introduce when it’s safe to do so, such as expanded menu options and fitness centers or meditation rooms.
For this workplace strategy to be successful, however, employers need to be able to gauge how many people are planning to come in on any given day. Ideally, in an office hoteling environment, employees would reserve space in advance. This could be at a central office or at smaller “hubs” or studios.
It could even mean leasing space at actual hotels. During the pandemic, some hotel properties rented guest rooms by the day to people who needed a quiet place to work.
“The hotel environment is highly controlled; cleaned constantly, staffed around the clock, open seven days a week, capable of offering (food and beverage) service — all of these attributes that made them ideal for offices,” said Greg Velasquez, director of sales and marketing at The London West Hollywood, in a recent article.
Other considerations for an effective workplace strategy
Finding the best way to return to the office safely and developing a more sustainable corporate real estate strategy are challenges for even the most successful leaders, and there are no easy answers.
Whether you’ve recently reopened or you’re waiting a little longer, you’ll need to make sure you have the right design, technology, and policies to support more agile working.
Workplace design updates
Updating your workplace design could include reconfiguring your floor plan, adding workstation dividers, and adding digital signage to manage the flow of traffic.
You’ll also need to consider how to limit capacity in conference rooms and common areas.
And, if you want to make longer-term improvements, you might consider new ventilation systems, replacing soft seating with antimicrobial furniture, and adding sensors for more efficient cleaning and sanitization.
Workplace technology upgrades
Many workplace strategies involve some level of unassigned seating. As Dropbox’s CEO pointed out, this can be difficult to manage if there are no guidelines or expectations for when employees should be in the office.
Desk booking software allows employees to reserve workspaces as needed from their mobile devices. This gives them the flexibility to choose when they come to the office and where they sit while giving your facilities team valuable workplace analytics.
In these flexible workspaces, employees also need to find each other and get support when they need it. A mobile workplace app keeps them connected to the people, places, and services they need to be productive.
Workplace policy changes
Your policies influence your culture, which is the third critical element of your employee experience.
As we move into the new year, it’s a good time for your HR leaders to update your workplace policies and ensure they’re in line with your new strategy.
This includes your remote work policy, sick leave policy, acceptable use of workplace technology, and visitor management policy.
We know we’re not returning to a new normal, but a new frontier that is constantly changing. That’s why it’s time for the next evolution of workplace software. We’re not talking about your standard IWMS, but an integrated experience management system (iXMS) that puts your employees at the center of it all.