Navigating the unclear waters of the pandemic’s aftermath is one of the biggest challenges business leaders face in the coming year. As our previous article explored, there will be a reconceptualisation of the office as a physical space. Furthermore, across nearly every industry, leaders will need to learn from the lessons of this large-scale remote-working experiment and creatively conceive new working practices for the next decade.
What becomes of the office?
A tentative return to the office is on the horizon in the UK, but they will certainly not go back to being the bustling people-centered places of pre-pandemic times. Offices had previously held the reputation of spaces that were critical to the productivity and culture of the organisation, with large companies battling it out for prime real estate locations for their employees. The pandemic has questioned this conventional wisdom, and accepted hybrid working models are the way forward.
According to McKinsey research, 80 per cent of those surveyed stated that they enjoy working from home, with a further forty-one per cent saying that they were more productive than they had been before. Many are experiencing a healthier work/life balance having been freed from the shackles of long commutes and have no intention of returning to the office permanently.
Management teams will need to demonstrate empathy and understanding towards employees, who have all experienced the crisis in their own ways. For some, a return to the office space will be a long-awaited and welcome one. Others may have taken on caregiving responsibilities, for example, and have benefitted from the flexibility remote work has afforded them. A tailored approach to individuals’ needs will be crucial.
Where office spaces do still exist, a flexi-model will be the most efficient approach. Few want or expect to go back to the office five days a week. Fixed desks for staff will be phased out, and working hotspots equipped according to each teams’ needs will become the primary model of working. This will require advanced scheduling systems to be built into organisations’ IT infrastructure but will save on operational costs overall. Offices will still hold a valuable spiritual relevance for an organisation, but the demand for workers to be present full-time has been consigned to history.
Rethinking how work is done
Shifting physical locations means exploring the notion that employee contracts need to focus more on meeting goals than on set hours. Within this scenario, KPIs related to output and impact would be a better metric by which a knowledge-economy employee is measured, as opposed to how long they have worked.
Due to the relatively sudden outbreak of the pandemic, most organisations didn’t have much time to form a long-term remote working strategy - they simply transplanted their existing processes to the new situation. For more tech-savvy organisations, the transition was seamless, for others a more rigorous evaluation of processes and collaboration is still required.
Often challenges present opportunities. In the past, an organisation may have generated ideas by bringing heads together in the meeting room and brainstorming. This may have included the use of digital tools, but never relied solely on them. In the post-COVID-19 world, brainstorming may take place across various channels, over a longer period, collecting knowledge and experiences from further reaches of the organisation. This may be followed by a refinement period between a smaller group of key decision-makers to craft an effective strategy from the sources gathered.
There will be more focus than ever on collaborative tools such as Miro which had started to emerge pre-pandemic, as the competitive software market fuels exciting innovations and developments for streamlining remote working teams. Businesses are benefitting from platforms such as Miro, a real-time interactive whiteboard which allows ideas to be accumulated and projects be to be planned in a dynamic virtual space. They have replaced the traditional meeting room brainstorming and have proven that perhaps this virtual collaboration space could perhaps be more effective in the case of generating ideas and moving forward with projects.
Asking the right questions
There are of course many unanswered questions that organisations will face both individually and collectively in the coming year. What will greater remote working practices mean for corporate culture? How will mentorship and talent development be affected? And has the work-from-home model only succeeded due to its temporary nature? Finding the answers to these will help leaders devise more sustainable long-term working practices.
Another hugely important question that has been asked over the past year is whether organisations are prepared to tackle the cyber risks associated with an increasingly dispersed workforce. The expanding number of mobile devices creates vulnerabilities to corporate networks. There is an ongoing and vital need to reevaluate long-term strategy of keeping data safe. This will likely require new training for all employees on how to remain digitally vigilant, and a need to design more secure systems.
The UK business response
Many organisations in the UK have already outlined their intentions to embrace hybrid working models in the future. Lloyds Banking Group has said they would answer their staffs’ expressed desire to continue working at home post-pandemic, whilst NatWest will ensure most roles have an element of homeworking when staff return to the bank’s offices later this year. Virgin Media is working on its “future ways of work” strategy, which they say was likely to result in offices being adapted for hybrid working. Challenger bank Revolut has declared they will move most of their 2,000 staff to a permanent flexible working model and convert much of their office space into collaboration spaces.
JP Morgan executives, exploring similar working models, raised the important point that whatever new structure they implement, they will take extra care not to accidently introduce new inequalities between those opting for remote work rather than office.
A good strategy for the future of work practices can help leaders reinvent how an organisation operates in the new normal. It will create a better experience for talent and improve collaboration and productivity throughout. The silver lining of this immensely difficult year is that organisations have the opportunity to rethink their processes and drive fundamental change.
In our first blog in the post-COVID-19 office series here, we’ll explore how the physical office space will alter as organisations prepare and adapt for the new normal.