Covid-19 has fast-tracked strategic workplace initiatives to address a dispersed workforce and fuel digital transformation. I work with organizations that are re-imagining their workplace strategy with an emphasis on safety and social distancing, flexibility, cost reduction and employee experience, all while they balance working from the office and working from home.
A year of remote working has challenged us to rethink our traditional work models. According to Microsoft’s 2021 report, 73% of employees surveyed expressed a desire for flexible remote work options post-pandemic, and 66% of businesses said they were considering redesigning physical spaces to better accommodate hybrid work environments.
Further, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will soon issue a new emergency standard to improve workplace protections against Covid-19. Among other measures, it is expected to make the guidelines it issued in January 2020 mandatory, where it emphasized wearing masks, social distancing, regular testing, adequate ventilation, frequent cleaning and disinfection and paid leave or remote work options for employees who needed to quarantine. These trends are poised to accelerate the transition to the workplace of the future.
The future will be more hybrid. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the majority of organizations required employees to spend most of their time on-site. But as the pandemic eases, executives say that the hybrid model—in which employees work both remotely and, in the office, —will become far more common. The majority of executives expect that (for all roles that aren’t essential to perform on-site) employees will be on-site between 21 and 80 percent of the time, or one to four days per week.
The Future Is Hybrid
The modern office was designed around productivity at its core. But the Covid-19 pandemic triggered a fundamental shift away from this assumption. Almost overnight, safety took precedence over productivity. As organizations shut their offices to protect their employees, cubicles and cabins gave way to kitchen tables and bedrooms in what was the greatest experiment in working from home in human history.
But even as offices prepare to reopen, we are a long way from the end of the pandemic. Much of the U.S. is still unvaccinated. Many workers — older employees and those with health conditions, for example — will continue operating from home for the foreseeable future, if not permanently. Increased worker protection driven by hybrid workforce models, which accommodate both the physical and digital worlds, will come to define the post-pandemic workplace.
In a 2020 survey by CoreNet Global and Cushman & Wakefield, a majority of respondents said they followed an office-first approach, and less than a third had adopted a hybrid model in pre-Covid times. The report predicts that in a post-Covid world, remote-first models will be just as prevalent and hybrid models are likely to more than double.
The transition is already happening. As early as May 2020, Twitter made global headlines when it announced that its employees could work from home “forever” if they wished. Facebook followed suit the same month, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg noting up to 50% of the company’s workforce could be working remotely in the next five to 10 years. Google is currently allowing its employees to work remotely until September 2021, with plans to test a flexible workweek once employees return to the office.
Companies are adopting innovative solutions to ease the transition to a new model. Dropbox is offering stipends to subscribe to co-working spaces for employees who need a physical workspace. GitLab encourages its employees to spend a few hours a week on virtual coffee breaks and use Slack and Google Hangouts for informal and spontaneous conversations in the absence of physical connection. Even before the pandemic, Cisco used videoconferencing technology to make two different rooms resemble a single space to ensure seamless collaboration.
Technology Can Accelerate Transformation
In a hybrid workplace, flexible work options will enable some to continue working remotely while allowing others to either work in the office or shuttle between both. Further, the post-Covid office will need to be redesigned with a focus on safety and hygiene. These are undoubtedly radical changes. But just as technology kept the world running amidst physical restrictions, it equips organizations with the tools to transition to a hybrid future. Here is what companies can achieve through enterprise technology powered by AI and IoT:
IoT sensors can count the number of people in a building to limit occupancy. They can also identify desks that need sanitization, based on the frequency of use. AI can analyze this data to identify spaces that maximize worker safety. It can also analyze building floor plans to implement automatic social distancing and reduce touchpoints. Tech can even aid visitor health safety management. Contactless entry reduces contamination by eliminating surface touch. Health declarations can be obtained and stored digitally. And contact tracing can help contain possible infection.
With employees working on-site, remotely and both, employers will have to determine how best they can optimize their office spaces. Hot-desking — the practice of allocating desks and rooms on an as-needed basis — will become more commonplace as teams adopt flexible work schedules. AI-driven enterprise solutions can help automate this. Self-service workplace experience apps will enable workers to automatically book desks or meeting rooms and customize their workspace based on their requirements. Companies could also find underutilized space in the process, which they may want to offload. AI can help them assess the potential profits and costs involved.
Productivity And Collaboration
Having a distributed workforce comes with the responsibility of ensuring transparency. An enterprise app allows teams to record information related to their schedules and bookings in one place. This ensures better collaboration among colleagues and allows them to plan their schedules to make the best of the few days they come to the office.
Before 2020, it may have been tempting to believe that digital transformation was years away. The Covid-19 pandemic has dispelled this myth. We inhabit two worlds today, the physical and the digital. As companies reopen offices, they must find ways to balance the two. History suggests that investing in one’s business during a recession ensures that it will thrive when the tide turns. This is evidently such a moment. To quote President Theodore Roosevelt, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” There is no greater time than the present to act.