Returning to work after COVID: No more 9 to 5?

Written on May 10, 2021 by Jonathon Webley

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has forced the rapid adoption of new ways of working in order for employers to ensure their employees are both safe and productive. Many employers have risen to this unprecedented challenge, swiftly adopting new working practices that even the most comprehensive business continuity plans had not envisaged.

However, businesses of all sizes and across all industries have much to learn from what has been seen as a large-scale ‘work from home’ experiment over the last twelve months or so – leading us to rethink how we return to work after COVID-19 and what role the office is going to play in this.

Changing attitudes to the role of the office

The office has always been seen as a critical space for productivity, and honing the talent pipeline in the past, with many companies fighting for prime office space in the major cities of the world. Collaboration was encouraged through the use of open-office designs and co-working, and home-working was frowned on.

The coronavirus saw a sharp change in focus, with 46.6% of the UK population working from home in April 2020 as a result of the pandemic, compared to 30% in 2019.  Many employers were also surprised by the speed of adoption of video conferencing and other forms of digital collaboration amongst their workforce – with many indicating that the results of this were better than imagined.

Research by global consulting firm McKinsey found that

  • 80% of people they questioned reported that they ‘enjoyed’ working from home
  • 41% said they were more productive than they had been before
  • 28% said they were as productive

This could be down to the freedom from long commutes and travel, and enjoyment of greater flexibility in their work and professional lives – with many employees ending up realising that they preferred to work from home rather than the office.

Employers have adapted to this new way of working too, as they have found that the fact that they now have fewer location constraints means they can access a wider pool of talent, they can boost productivity through the use of innovative processes, and they can significantly reduce the costs of office space which has a massive impact on their bottom line.

However, these same employers and employees are now looking ahead to their offices reopening and what challenges this might bring. Although the vaccine roll-out is going well, the experience that employees have in the office won’t be the same as it was before the pandemic.

Office spaces will need to be redesigned to ensure social distancing measures can be adhered to, employees will need to wear masks at all times, and movement in restricted areas such as lifts and shared kitchens will also be restricted. These changes will probably mean that even after businesses reopen, attitudes towards working spaces will continue to evolve and change.

However, some employers are arguing that the productivity people have experienced working from home is a reflection of the hours spent in the office interacting with other employees before the coronavirus crises. They feel that the success of home working is mostly based on the fact that many people believe it is just a temporary solution and they will go back into the office again. They also feel that their hard-earned corporate culture and community may start to erode over time if people choose to continue to work from home, and don’t come into the office again.

There is no easy answer to this. Every business is different, as is every individual employee. Many employees have loved working from home, while others can’t wait to get back into the office and be around people again. We have all experienced different levels of happiness and unhappiness over the last 12 months. Some people’s productivity has increased and some has decreased, some are finding virtual collaboration is working well and some aren’t.

What will the future role of the office be?

As you can see, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the future of the office. The answer will depend on what job roles are the most important, what talent is needed, how much collaboration is necessary and where offices are located, amongst other things.

Tough choices will need to be made, and leaders must be empowered to drive the effort across the business as a whole, as well as individual functions. Permanent change like this will also require a change in management skills that are second to none.

The steps involved with reimaging how work is done include:

#1 Reconstructing how work is done

During the lockdown, working practices have adapted and changed to ensure employees can continue to collaborate and complete the necessary tasks remotely. Most companies have just transitioned their existing processes to the remote working environment, carrying on in the way they would have done before the pandemic – which has worked well for some, but not for all.

Ideally, companies should identify the most important processes within their business and re-evaluate them with input from employees – looking at both the professional development journey as well as the different stages of projects. This will help them to build a strong foundation for an improved operating model to take advantage of both in-person and remote working.

#2 ‘Work to people’ vs ‘People to work’

The competition for talented employees has been fiercer than ever in the past two years. On the other hand, however, employees are now less willing to relocate than before. As companies start to reconstruct how they work and identify what they can do remotely, they also need to look at what roles have to be carried out in person in the office and to what extent.

In the future job roles may be broken down into four areas:

  • Fully remote
  • Hybrid remote
  • Hybrid remote by exception
  • On-site

Upskilling is therefore going to be essential for roles in the fully remote and hybrid remote categories, but talent sourcing should theoretically become easier as there will be fewer geographical restrictions. This could be a winning formula for both employers and employees, with a positive effect on the quality of employees the company can attract.

#3 Redesigning the workplace to reflect organizational priorities

Most offices look very similar, with private offices and cubicles mixed in with meeting rooms, kitchens and shared spaces. These designs have stayed the same for many years, and don’t tend to take organizational priorities into account.

Office spaces should now be redesigned to support interactions that cannot happen remotely through the use of collaboration rooms rather than separate cubicles. Technology will have a greater part to play as well, with equipment such as virtual whiteboards and always-on video conferencing being critical tools to maintain collaboration and learning.

As employers around the world start to bring employees back to the office, leadership must act now to ensure they create a better experience for talent, improve collaboration and reduce costs.

Agile Recruit can help you with talent recruitment to assist you in achieving your company’s objectives. Get in touch with us today to find out how.