| Feb 10, 2021

Returning to the Workplace and What That Will Look Like in 2021

What a return to the workplace may entail as the vaccine is dispersed and COVID-19 restrictions are reduced throughout the coming year.
workplace

COVID-19 has forced millions of people to abandon the typical office and create work-from-home setups. Even so, the reality for many businesses is that a partial or full return to the traditional work building in 2021 is inevitable. To plan for this return successfully, we must first consider what the post-COVID office might look like.

Gratitude for Familiarity

One potential scenario is that the office will look much the same as it did before the pandemic. After months of working in jeans and T-shirts, people might be happy to go back to the workplace. Once viewed as boring, professional dress, seeing co-workers in person, interacting over projects, networking, meetings, and a little water cooler gossip might be more exciting. Exposure to what we know gives us a pleasant feeling of normalcy and control, after all.

Additionally, many businesses have faced economic hardship due to the pandemic. So some organizations might have held off updating processes, physical layouts, and other resources. This would further encourage the businesses to continue to operate much in the same way they did up until the end of 2019.

Relaxation of Restrictions

Some workers might have enjoyed the more relaxed atmosphere of their work-from-home setups. And, they might have been given more freedoms than normal to make those setups effective. In contrast, some workers might also be burned out — not just because of the pandemic but also because of other career or home stresses. So there might be some people who take a look at going back to the office and just don’t want to.

If this is the case, then managers need to understand offices are only effective when people really want to work in them. Leaders might have to initiate different strategies to make coming into the office more enticing. This could include abandoning certain protocols or rules and shifting the definition of “professional” a bit. For example, in strict companies or industries like banking — where the dress code has always been highly structured — you might see people accept more business casual attire.

Scheduling and Physical Presence

In a lot of instances, the pandemic taught managers that remote setups that were thought to be “impossible” were actually quite workable. Companies now have “proof of concept” and a better idea of whether productivity really does drop when workers go digital. So there needs to be a shifting of who works from home all the time, who works remotely sometimes as needed, and who needs to always be present in-person.

Now, realistically, most workers probably don’t have to be physically present every single day. But there are times when creativity and collaboration need to come together, and the culture of the organization sometimes requires that this creativity comes from personal interaction. Therefore, companies will need to look at which projects require this kind of face-to-face time. If you’re on a project that requires it, then coming into the office makes more sense.

Digging down a little deeper, project work will likely increase overall, and you’ll probably see some variation based on role or level in the company. If you’re an executive, for example, you might have to go to the office every day. But if you’re an individual contributor, then you might get to sign up for projects and be told at that time whether the work can be done totally at home, a little at home, or has to stay in the main building.

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Physical Layout Changes

One rare bright area of the pandemic is that business leaders learned how much space is actually necessary to be properly hygienic, preventing workers from spreading disease to each other. So as companies explore having more workers continue in remote work, they likely will spread out in-office workers and maintain the use of walls and/or plexiglass barriers. This doesn’t necessarily mean a total return to the cubicle, but it certainly could add fuel to the fire in the quest to kill open office plans. More barriers could influence workers’ ability to focus and stay organized in a positive way, but managers will need to build natural opportunities for socialization throughout the workday.

Keeping in mind the project considerations in the scheduling section above, businesses will also reconsider office space based on what they’re trying to get done. They might get rid of some of their real estate, depending on the goals/related personnel and how the stock market and company valuations hold up.

Even though the post-COVID office might maintain some elements of what we had before, a total return isn’t possible, simply because the experience of the pandemic itself has forced everyone to rethink priorities and how to work. But we have been willingly adapting for the sake of competition for decades. If we adapt again now when it is circumstantially required of us, then we will continue to successfully develop the efficiency and improved tenacity that we’ve always sought.

By David Partain
Executive Author

Chief Marketing Officer, Flexshares

David Partain is SVP of Northern Trust and CMO of their subsidiary, FlexShares Exchange Traded Funds. view profile

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