Covid Lockdown Diaries IV – Return to Offices

Social media is abuzz with people posting photos of empty offices and their desks as they left them months back; it is with some trepidation that they are returning to the office – some because it is required and some people as an experiment. What is going to be the new normal post Covid Lockdown as people return to offices?

This pandemic has forced us to relook at our work practices as well as work spaces. No one ever imagined that companies could function almost as efficiently remotely from home as in formal office spaces, managers have been forced to accept that even with household responsibilities, employees have been able to function with the same responsibility at homes. The open office concept adopted few decades back to promote teamwork and collaboration is now creating barriers as companies rethink on how to separate employees to protect them while they resume work and return to offices.

Many are still in denial and feel that this pandemic will be short-lived and things would get back to erstwhile normal, while some experts believe that it will take a long time for Covid to subside and even then it will be not be old normal but a new normal that will need to be envisioned to combat similar future outbreaks.

Work from Home

One of the given is that Work from Home (WFH) is here to stay, people will increasingly opt for few days in a week work-from-home. Various surveys have suggested that on the whole people have enjoyed this experience and have been more or less as productive as working from office as they have been relieved of long commutes and stress of traffic.

But experts argue that remote working has been successful over last few months primarily because of two reasons: because people thought that it is going to be for short time and because of relationships that have existed between people within the teams and across departments having worked together physically before the lockdown.

If this is the case, then the onus is on the management to think of new working patterns including investing in technology that would function as smoothly for remote working scenario. As more and more companies would opt from work-from-home for their workforce, companies which are rigid and enforce on-site working would loose out on talent – people will prefer to work for organisations promoting WFH.

Reconstruct Work Processes

It is important to rethink the work processes and adapt them in such a way that the customer experience does not get compromised while employees are able to work efficiently as well as safely. This requires starting with crucial important practices across the spectrum of the workforce, identifying the critical steps and remodelling them given the resources available onsite and offsite with the employees.

This will also require looking into all ongoing projects and the stages they are currently in – some may require onsite collaboration while others could continue to work remotely with online collaborative efforts.

This pandemic has taught how to do things in a way that we never imagined to do so. Reconstruction of work processes requires a complete rethinking – an innovative approach that discards the old ways. The core values of the organisation, the team spirit, professional development and aspirations of employees, customer satisfaction, safety and health of all parties, business objectives – should be the key guidelines to keep in mind while making the plans for return to offices.

Redesign the Workplace

As we bring employees back to the offices, there is an urgency to create safety protocols. Over a period of time, structure of our offices have changed drastically – from closed cubicles to open workstations, from individual workspace of 120-160 sq ft to 40-60 sq ft, central heating and cooling, carpeted and upholstered areas – all these changes are recipes for disaster in the current circumstances.

To make sure that health and safety forms the core of the workplace planning, in the short-term retro-fitting the place would work but in the long-term a revamp is inevitable. Technology would also play a big role in this transformation.

Relook at The Office Space

Companies at the time of opening an office look at prime locations, near or at the official hubs with access to talent, transport and other facilities. Over time, the space is added to, rents and maintenance charges increase, so does the manpower requirement.

Experts believe that this pandemic is forcing the organisations to relook at the office space as more and more people would prefer to work from home with few offices days. Hence, instead one big corporate or regional office, companies can look at redistributing the footprint with multiple macro and micro hubs – near to residential spaces, moving to smaller sub-urban cities.

This could potentially reduce real-estate related costs like rentals, facility operations – maintenance and other associated costs, capital costs. Other opportunity is to review at the lease costs and facility services costs and renegotiate them. Depending on the mode of working chosen by the companies, it is possible in current scenarios to reduce these costs drastically. Some companies which are moving to completely remote environment, would be able to get rid of these costs entirely.

How to Make Return to Offices Safer?

Each company or business has to make the decisions based on their own circumstances – it could be driven by role and functions, or geography, it could be basis the project or work deliveries – stage or importance, or it could be driven by access to technology. Some of these could be implemented in short-term for immediate gains and some would require long-term planning; also some of these could be short term measures for as long as the present conditions prevail but some could be implemented permanently. But all of them require a rethinking of their current practices.

Sanitisation Protocols

Bringing people together to work in the same physical space again requires huge efforts in making the offices safe. Some guidelines to be looked at:

  • Reducing as well as stagger the numbers coming to offices and as far as possible encourage WFH
  • Retro-fit the furniture – creating solitary seating and 6 ft distance by realigning the modular furniture; incase this is not possible, seat people in alternate seats
  • Put up barriers between workstations
  • Maintain 6 feet distance – create circles, markings in common areas like lifts, washrooms, pantry, waiting areas
  • Create pathways by putting up signs for unidirectional movement
  • Avoid touchpoint like switches, door handles, taps, bathroom and pantry fittings. Some measures like movement sensors for doors and water faucets require long-term planning and investment.
  • Avoid visitor movement inside the office premises, create short-term meeting spaces at the reception.
  • Create more meeting rooms of different sizes to accommodate varied group sizes
  • Following new guidelines for central air-conditioning units (HVAC system) – many companies are switching over to fans and air coolers keeping their AC systems switched off. This is also not healthy as the air still keeps on circulating within the system due to lack of ventilation and airflow.
  • More sanitisation stations with hand sanitises, disposable masks and gloves readily available.
  • Keeping masks on as far as possible – which in the absence of central air conditioning becomes suffocating and difficult.
  • Round-the-clock cleaning of central touchpoint especially door handles and water faucets. Earlier system of twice a day cleaning before and after office hours will not suffice in the current scenarios.
  • All workstations would require thorough cleaning everyday

Continue Work from Home

People would feel more comfortable to continue working from home – surveys conducted by MIT, Gallup, Global Workplace Analytics, Gartner and few others – most of them preferred to work at least 2-3 days a week from home. This trend started some years back when companies like Yahoo and IBM preferred remote working but when the experiment failed they reverted to onsite working model. One of the bigger reasons cited for not propagating WFH is the collaboration and teamwork effort along with response time, cohesiveness of the group that breaks down when people work from offsite locations.

However, due to health concerns during this pandemic and the fact that such scares in the future will continue, it is better for companies to look into remote working and create processes and culture that supports work from home. Absence of child care and elderly care facilities during such times also makes it difficult for employees to return to offices full time.

The best way to manage is a combination of physical office and working from home schedule – this will make the return to offices not only safer for the complete workforce but also bring confidence in employees once they see the safety measures and will also help them manage their work and home responsibilities.

  • Manage workforce – It will not be conducive to have all employees return to offices together – currently most of the office spaces are not prepared for maintaining physical distance and sanitisation norms. One basic criteria for working onsite could be basis the roles – certain roles including access to technology and data would require complete onsite working. Whereas others could be a combination of hybrid WFH – certain mandated days in a week for particular teams or departments to come to office, or cross-functional teams on projects that require meeting once or twice in a week for collaboration and discussions – this would manage the workforce density in the office while not putting pressure on systems. And few independent roles or functions can continue to work completely from home till things become normal.
  • Core and mandatory hours & Flexible Schedule – Certain time of the day during WFH should be mandatory for all employees either as a function or as a company to be on work – this would help schedule meetings and manage time more effectively. Apart from these core hours, employees can be given flexibility to choose working hours – Like for example for mothers with younger children may prefer to adopt an early morning or late evening hours to work peacefully, while others may prefer normal working hours schedule or late start to the day after finishing all household chores.
  • Zero Hours – For work from home to succeed, there is also need for Zero hours, where no phone calls, emails or virtual meetings happen – weekends, meal times, late nights or early mornings – unless there is an emergency that requires intervention, guidelines similar to office working etiquette should be followed.

Technology Leads the Way

For both return to offices and work from home scenarios to work smoothly, technology will play a vital role in reimagining the working practices.

  • Bio-metric and motion sensor technology for infrastructure requires planning and investments, it is important to evaluate these needs and make decisions that help navigate the future.
  • Investing in remote working tools that assist teams sitting separately can be managed quickly and increase the overall work efficiency.
  • Propagating the use of virtual whiteboards, shared documents, idea sharing platforms, virtual meetings and video conference facilities would help in bridging the physical and virtual divide for seamless transition of onsite and offsite working teams.
  • Access to secure servers and software remotely, equipping employees with laptops, smartphones and broadband technology is a must for any business.
  • Investing in technology that helps counter cybersecurity issues like data breach, user privacy and hacking is also a must as the work resumes digitally.
  • All of this to function smoothly would also need investment on time and effort to coach employees across the length and breadth of different geographies.

Redefining the Company Policies

As the work and home place merges and dining table becomes your work station, it becomes difficult to separate the two places mentally. With all family members staying at home together around the clock, the demands for attention from family and colleagues at the same time can be overwhelming.

Some of the issues that require redressal and may need a change or a clarification at the company level could be:

  • Tracking the hours or milestones – many companies are still demanding an early 9 am login to work while working remotely. However, for remote working to be successful, employees need a flexible schedule to manage all their responsibilities. So is tracking the man hours more important or tracking the deliveries would be better? And how to manage and track long phone conversations and consultations that are essential for work but also eat away valuable time?
  • Managing the schedule – it is important for company to manage the schedule of its employees, so that during the working hours of the day, there is sufficient manpower available to handle any problems or emergencies – this is especially true for customer service, PR and Legal teams. However, employers should also allow for little flexibility in the employee schedule to cater for individual emergencies as well. A two-way open communication within the team would help in managing this.
  • Legal and Insurance related – Business expenses, legal claims for employee insurance while at work, business liability cases, employee compensation all would require to be reviewed incase of hybrid working models.
  • Defining the Success Metrics – Across work functions, roles and positions, new success metrics have to be defined as per the new working norms.
  • Leave and attendance modules – current circumstances do not allow for travel either for work or personal purposes. However, that does not discount the fact that employees would still like to switch off from work and take few days off. In the new circumstances, the attendance and leave policy also need to be revoked and adjusted. With flexible scheduling 9 am login or a 9 hour work day is no longer a just criteria.

Organisation Culture and Practices

Definition of culture is fluid and intangible, organisations define it in terms of Company’s Vision and Mission, Values and Ethics . The Whys, Whats, and Hows of doing work, interacting with co-workers within the team or cross-functionally, reacting to crisis – all of this and more constitutes the culture of an organisation.

When working together, people get various opportunities to interact face-to-face – sometimes formally and sometimes informally. There is an infinite value in corridor discussions, water cooler or smoke break discussions which help create bond and remove awkwardness of people working together. The team outings both formal and informal also help in developing the cohesiveness.

Working remotely creates that physical barrier that video and audio calls cannot circumvent, and can lead to disruption in that collaborative team spirit. This is even more prominent with new employees joining the workforce who would not have had the opportunity of developing the working relationship in the physical space.

  • Identifying the cultural shifts – working in silos across geographies, with limited employee, managerial and leadership interaction can erode the established interaction norms. Hence, it is essential to identify the cracks and take action swiftly before it impacts work.
  • Professional development and mentoring – remote working also created disruption in the learning and development of the employee. A manager cannot afford to be aggressively monitoring individual’s work but s/he still needs to maintain communication across job list and projects, learning opportunities, solving problems as well as making sure that the morale of teams as well as individual remains high.
  • Celebrating – working together in an office gives many opportunities to celebrate both personal and professional achievements that help in establishing teamwork spirits. In the absence of physical space, leaders along with HR teams need to help create virtual celebration, morale uplifting and other team activities that would help to sustain as well as create the bonds – they could be formal or informal depending on the occasion.

Communication is the Key

Whether communicating internally or externally, communication will play an even bigger role – when the lockdown started, companies across the world floundered with zero communication across many countries and organisations. Over a period, when the norms eased, companies evaluated – most of them found a way to talk to customers as well as to each other. With some experience of working across all scenarios, it will be easier to create new guidelines and practices to communicate.

Leaders need to assure both customers as well as their teams on the safety measures adopted so that business activities can resume. New office timings or ways for customers to reach out to the company need to be communicated proactively but not be too overwhelming in terms of schedule and content of communication.

Similarly, the new guidelines, success metrics, way of working and collaboration and all the other changes that business has made need to be communicated to all the employees. They will also need an assurance of availability of leaders, managers or compliance/HR teams to talk to incase of problems, grievances and other issues. In the absence of walking across to have a chat, communicating across teams needs to be managed in such a way that individual schedule of people do not get disrupted and the work still gets done.

Urgent attention incase of emergencies will still require going over and above the normal working rules as long as they do not become the norm.

Being Agile

Agility is the buzz word, responding and adapting quickly to challenges require to a certain extent responsibility and autonomy at the ground and lower levels. Delayed decision making could affect the business more in the present circumstances than a wrong decision.

A long chain of command creates bottlenecks, a decentralised decision making process can help business achieve more in the long run while discovering new talent and new leaders in the process.

Standard and Consistent Norms

All of this would work only in the absence of biases – working away from physical offices makes it difficult for observation and communication. Hence, creating the guidelines, defining success metrics and evaluation based on performance, being consistent under similar circumstances across the team would help in navigating the combination of physical and virtual working norms more effectively. This is essential for retaining talent, building team spirit and achieving business goals.

Getting back to offices is going to be a changed and difficult experience, therefore, the need for transformational thinking on making the workplaces safer, healthier as well as an enjoyable experience going forward.

Continuing from Covid Lockdown Diaries I – Nature’s Pushback, Covid Lockdown Diaries II – the human angle and Covid Lockdown Diaries III – Work from Home.

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