The evidence for the harm the pandemic has caused is all around us, but if there is one characteristic that defines humankind it’s our ability to adapt and learn from adversity: over the last year we have carried out the largest experiment in remote working in history. What we now need to do is build on that achievement, instead of just waiting for the pandemic to subside before we go back to working like we did before.
What has the pandemic taught us? First of all, that working from home is not only possible, but can, with the right approach, be desirable. If we look back at the remote working experiments many companies carried out at the end of the last century, we see that in many cases they generated a sense of being uprooted, a lack of commitment in many employees. But things have changed and new technologies are now available that provide new options, prompting people around the world to consider working from home on a permanent basis, many of whom have already taken important decisions, such as moving home. New areas are beginning to appear that are considering attracting these remote workers, and although things aren’t always simple, we can see trends and changes in habits that would have surprised us until very recently.
Which means that potentially, 2021 is set to be an even better year for working from home: as the vaccination campaigns pick up speed, and the pressure exerted by the pandemic begins to ease, we will be able not only to work from home, but also to think about it in a different way: being able to go out, to spend a few days at the office without fear of becoming infected, to breathe normally and to escape the claustrophobia of lockdown. It’s no coincidence that the tech giants, the young and flexible companies, and some other visionaries are adopting the idea of “work from wherever you want” as part of their philosophy, and it is also to be expected that this will aid their capacity to attract and retain talent.
The change in work habits due to the pandemic will lead to many changes with respect to the work environments we know: the real estate market in San Francisco is in free fall, and important changes are being considered with respect to office space. The future of offices as we know them will change dramatically when workers are given the choice of how and from where they work.
In which case, why are many companies that implemented work-from-home policies now having doubts about making the arrangements permanent? Because turning a temporary change resulting from a circumstance such as a pandemic into something permanent requires a complete re-architecture. A re-architecturing that begins with physical spaces: the offices of the future will not be places where a worker, as such, “sits down to work”, because that will be done from home. Instead, offices will become places to interact, to maintain social bonds. There will be spaces to sit and work, but not permanently, not somewhere you’d put your family photos out, in fact not even the materials you are working with.
When you are done, you clear your workspace. More important will be those areas where you can meet colleagues, spaces where you’ll attend a course or conference, invite clients, etc. A radical physical re-architecturing of office space that will simply turn them into something else, with fewer space requirements and that will respond to different needs: the vast majority of workers will spend only a few hours a week there. The idea of the worker spending eight or more hours chained to a chair will soon evoke another age, one that will soon be as distant as the workshops of the industrial revolution.
But this physical re-architecturing must be accompanied by other processes: managers must learn to manage hybrid teams, to do so without micromanagement, maintaining contact to avoid disengagement and to keep people who may be working anywhere in the world motivated. ERM, Employee Relationships Management, will become crucial, a key capacity of companies.
The pandemic is still very much with us, although we can now see light at the end of the tunnel, which means it’s time to consider how we will work in the future. Companies unable to provide the leadership needed to make those changes will lose out: bright workers, hungry for greater freedom and more flexible conditions, will flee them. The time to redesign our offices is not in a few months, but now, when our employees are still working from home or are mindful of the conditions under which they worked during lockdown. Linking changes in habits to a physical re-architecturing is fundamental to consolidating them, so that when people see what the office they used to go to every day has become, is aware that things have changed, requiring changes in response, from rethinking our homes to create a permanent work space, to considering a move to a new area that offers new amenities.
If nothing else, the pandemic has taught us that there is another way of working, and that when done properly, offers many possibilities. It is time to apply that learning, to optimize it and think seriously about how we want to work in the future. Covid-19 has shattered the tendency toward isomorphism, which made the vast majority of offices and workplaces very similar to each other. The smart companies, those that are sufficiently prepared, are going to take advantage of the new situation. There’s no going back. Expect big changes over the next year.
This post was previously published on Enrique Dans.
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