COVID-19 Update: Returning to New Office Life

A Q&A With Business Leaders

When we entered the “Great Lockdown” phase of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, workplaces across industries were forced to move swiftly from the office to the home. Although this transition was chaotic, in many cases, it was easier than employers thought it would be. But the transition that lies ahead – returning to the office – raises new questions and poses novel challenges.

In recent discussions with business leaders across industries, we’ve explored the myriad issues that organizations face as they transition back to office life. We thought it would be helpful to summarize the insights, challenges and opportunities they have shared as you develop your own organization’s return-to-office plans.

  1. What were the unexpected benefits and challenges of working-from-home (“WFH”)?

Where it may have historically carried stigma and skepticism, this imposed WFH situation taught us that flexible working works. Leaders and businesses that have embraced flexibility recognize that their people can be productive at home. Many have been able to repurpose time that used to be spent commuting, and new forms of collaboration have led to an upswing in dialogue and diversity of thought.

On the flip side, WFH has challenged our natural empathy. Without face-to-face interaction, we miss out on important cues that tell us how our co-workers are doing. People can get siloed and feel disconnected.

As the economy transitions to a new normal, businesses need to learn how to stay connected and care for each other even if their workforces don’t share the same physical space.

  1. When should organizations bring their workforce back to the office?

Returning to the office should focus on a needs-based approach. Rather than simply asking when are we going back, business leaders should be asking who really needs to be in the office and why/when?

While much of the answer to this may be operational, it is important to remember that the answer can also be personal – it’s not just a question of whose work requires physical presence. It can also encompass people who need to return to the office because they are struggling at home, are having difficulties with mental health or do not have the resources available to be productive and successful in the long term at home.

  1. How can businesses keep people safe and protect their culture?

Businesses need to prepare for their people to reoccupy office space with a focus that centers on health and safety. That means thinking about protocols and signage, physical distancing, workplace reconfiguration and sanitization, and what to do about screening and contact tracing.

It may also mean considering staggered returns, where people return gradually in waves, or shifted returns, where people take turns working in the office and working from home.

At the same time, businesses should be mindful that staggered and shifted returns can introduce new problems. If some people are working from home while others are in the office, people can be unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged. This is a serious consideration and your business may need to develop the rules of engagement for a hybrid work environment.

  1. How can businesses ensure a “level playing field” for employees?

Business will need to educate managers to promote a level playing field. Managers should aim to understand the different needs and circumstances of their people, and to take into account a broad range of considerations: family life, age, mental health, commute, workspace viability and financial means, particularly where those trigger human rights accommodation obligations. 

For example, some people may not be able to afford the technology needed for WFM. If our new normal involves people working from home on a regular basis, flexibility and fairness must be top of mind and employers must be prepared to address accommodation requests that will require contextual and legally compliant reviews and responses.

  1. How can businesses help a commuting workforce?

A hurdle for businesses with offices in dense downtown centres is the commute. Many people will be anxious about using public transit. This concern invites two thoughts:

  • Individual safety – Don’t ask people to come back until it is safe for those particular individuals to do so or until the company can equip those individuals with PPE to safely navigate the trip. Managers should be equipped with the tools and discretion they need to support their people in this way.
  • To minimize crowding on public transportation, businesses that have been able to work productively without being physically present in offices should not interfere with the ongoing operation of essential businesses and the return of businesses that need a physical presence to finally get up and running. Those who can afford to transition slowly, should.
  1. How can businesses rethink their real estate footprint?

Businesses may need or want to rethink how they use their office space. Many businesses will de-densify or will reconfigure their existing space. But that doesn’t mean abandoning offices completely.

For many businesses, the office will become a social and collaboration hub where colleagues can come to interact in person, and where teams can host selective client gatherings. Rather than being focused on a place to work, offices will become a place to connect.

  1. Will the flexibility of WFH be a temporary fix or a permanent new normal?

No one can say definitively how the future will look. The pendulum will likely swing back and forth before a new status quo is cemented. But given the benefits of flexible work, many businesses will put flexibility as a pillar of the new normal as businesses transition back to office life.

If these questions are top of mind for you and you would like to discuss your organization’s distinct challenges or plans, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We have helped many organizations across industries craft their “return to office” plans and would be pleased to support you through this unique time.

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