Economic recovery following COVID-19 will not be easy, and organisations will be required to rethink the way they work to incorporate the lessons learned. Lockdowns and enforced home-working changed what it meant to “go to work” for many people.
During the pandemic, organisations had to make adjustments to help keep employees safe, such as increased ventilation, social distancing and other COVID-19 mitigations. This disruption caused our hospitality spaces to look more like hospitals and have forever changed employees’ and organisations’ preconceptions of what a workplace is.
However we should not stop there. Theodore Levitt’s famous quote: “people don’t want a quarter-inch drill they want to quarter-inch hole” led me to the following conclusion some four years before Covid, “Organisations don’t want facilities they want a productive workforce”.
This may sound counterintuitive for somebody who has spent his entire career in the built environment but it has spurred me on to rethink of how the office can support and enable business.
FM has always recognised that its role involved physical assets, technology and people. The balance of interest in these three, however, has changed over time. The technology content of buildings and increasing workplace regulations have driven a greater focus on assets and technology.
But I believe the focus needs to shift to emphasise the people element and providing effective workplaces that closely support how people will work in the future.
We are only now beginning to understand the implications of this disruption and the changing work arrangements and the implications for organisations looking to create hybrid workplaces and how this can be a positive change for workers.
While businesses report that hybrid working is overwhelmingly the new normal for their office workers, research has shown that this can mean widely different things in practice. Hybrid working varies in how much control employees are given over where they work as well as when they work.
Hybrid working has different requirements for office space and leaders need to be clear about what hybrid working means for their organisation. Hybrid working is not necessarily an empowering or better arrangement for employees. An employee could still be told exactly where and when they are expected to work, offering very little in the way of flexibility.
"There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of un-equals" Aristotle insight is as true to days it may have been in 330BC. Today's hybrid conversations are causing tensions which lead people to feel a growing chasm between those who can and can't work flexibly.
This will require very mature and deft management manoeuvring to avoid discrimination on grounds of proximity. To fix this, managers need to communicate the benefits of office work and not let individual workloads dominate over what's good for everyone.
Mandating that workers to return to the office full time is likely to break any trust that may have been formed between management and employees over the last two years.
It is my belief that rather than compelling a return to work, leadership needs to provide a compelling reason for workers to return.
The physical workplace is a powerful catalyst for change and a clear sign to employees that change is afoot. After all the office we all left in March 2020 will not cut it, attitudes and perceptions have changed and we have moved on.
Incentivising employees to return with a transactional offering of free food, or yoga classes undermines the value to the corporation and will fail in the long term.
Recent research, in the UK, found that the most influential factors aligning with changing one's mind about where to work, are related to the environment and the social interaction that it can facilitate (or hinder!)
The hybrid workplace is a problem that affects all aspects of work-life and requires knock-on changes to IT, work processes, organisational goals and culture to be successful. It will take time to change office settings and create new technology to facilitate the way we want to work.
Workers in a hybrid office are asked to think about what is most important for them. What trade-offs are they willing to make, and what benefits does the new method provide? In some cases, it might be best if nothing changes, but other options could include keeping traditional offices unchanged or implementing an entirely virtual environment.
To create a perfect environment for all individuals, there will be compromises. We were unsuccessful at catering to everyone’s needs before the epidemic, but superior experiences are all about personalisation and those with hybrid schedules can better suit their individual preferences. We can aim to do better with hybrid working, but there are compromises required. Organisations need to take these into account when creating an environment for employees.
The pre-pandemic trend in office design towards agile or activity-based workspaces has been turbo-charged by the pandemic. These types of offices provide a degree of flexibility and variety of workspace that is likely to provide a pragmatic solution for organisations with employees undertaking a wide range of work tasks and variable levels of office occupancy.
These types of workspaces raise a range of work tasks. They also create an atmosphere that is reliable by balancing uncertainty and providing for employees' needs. Most importantly, you need to support technologies like booking systems, and hot-desking, to ensure that it meets the needs of employees.
The question “Where do I work?” is now more complicated to answer, yet it offers a huge opportunity to improve the workplace and how organisations operate. This challenge is fraught with trade-offs, between individuals, teams and departments, between competing goals and business objectives, with many different solutions on the table.