A Time to Re-set : The Office of 2021

The workplace will need to become a place where people want to be, not a place where people need to be.
By Ramesh Vala O.B.E. (Consultant and International Brand Ambassador with Ince Group plc) – London and Anushka De (Brand Consultant) – Delhi.

We live in an era of disruption where technology and emerging economies have changed the way we live and work, but no one can deny that the Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the greatest disruptors modern society has seen so far.

Within nine months, it has brought about some unprecedented changes to our daily lives that even the most progressive thinkers would have never imagined possible.

We were forced to stop and take stock creating significant changes in our attitudes towards relationships, health and wellness, finance, education, travel, sustainability and more. This has resulted in people taking a moment to reflect on what is important to them.

It is almost certain that this crisis will have a structural long-term impact on how we work, think, and live our lives. For some, this is a welcome change but for others not so much, however, we must all remain optimistic.

In each crisis, there are benefits and lessons learnt. This particular crisis feels like a ‘divine pause button’ which has been pressed to awaken our minds, unleashing limitless possibilities for development and transformation in the way we move forward.

We can see this by the way in which organisations have been forced to re-imagine the workplace. The conventional role played by offices has been cast away, making space for new protocols. It is now imperative to create a safe, productive and enjoyable work culture which is specifically designed to improve people’s experiences.

In the pre-Covid days, offices were considered critical to productivity, culture and winning the war for talent. Unfortunately, most offices were homogenised boxes in sterile environments. We mandated that presenteeism in the office was necessary long past the time the law of diminishing returns set in. An employee had to be in before the manager – staying beyond the time the manager had gone home – and the traditional 9-5 working schedule was believed to create a more productive work environment.

As a direct result of the pandemic, such long-held assumptions about how work should be conducted have changed as offices have become no-go zones replaced by remote working.

When the ‘new normality’ returns, people will gradually return to offices but for a good reason; the new office will have to be an allure for leaving home. Will it become the ‘new’ enticing high street?

Remote working has enabled employees to operate from the comfort of their homes and enabled them to focus more on work whilst avoiding the distractions associated with working in an office. For some people, this approach may not work as working from home can have the same distractions, if not more. For many, house shares, overcrowding and poor living conditions can make the office seem like a much better option.

In addition it is important to note that remote working should not be construed as ‘barrierless’ work hours unless flexibility is permitted as people can easily burn out without realising. At times like this, employees simply do not know when to switch off. This would be counter-productive in the long run.

On the plus side, there is no doubt that those working in larger cities are liberated from long commutes and have found more productive ways to utilise their time. They have found a better balance between their personal and professional lives.

As the pandemic resets major work trends, does this mean businesses will need to rethink workforce and employee management, performance, and experience strategies?

Whilst this may not be the new way of working for everyone, businesses will need to consider the fact that a lot of people will not want to resume working in the office if they do not have to.

Whether employees work from home weekly or full-time, employers will have to acknowledge that flexibility in the way people can work offers a plethora of opportunities for learning and re-defining working style which can be determined by the measurement of employee productivity and company values.

Whilst the advantages are numerous, there are those who genuinely struggle and miss the office dynamics which requires engaging with a real human. These include chit-chatting around the photocopier or a morning coffee catch up in the staff room.

The new work culture and the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic has amplified stress and anxiety levels amongst some employees, which impose an unprecedented strain on organisations, forcing them to find ways to keep some employees engaged.

Employers will be confronted with having to manage this because not only do they have to concern themselves with the physical health of their employees but there is also mental health. Accordingly, organisations will have to plan for the entire workplace ecosystem ensuring that the employees are supported in every way possible and support business operations to ensure they can ride the wave of change.

This can be done by going the extra mile, reaching out, showing care and asking the question “how are you coping, is there anything we can do to make it easier for you?”

Offering support has become imperative for businesses. Keeping teams motivated, engaged and success-oriented – a challenge even during pre-corona days – has become increasingly harder.

So what can businesses do?

In order to support this change and manage staff through these unprecedented times, business owners will have to coach managers and supervisors on the ‘trust quotient’ and invest in the development of employee-to-employee relationships. This means cultivating inclusion and psychological safety and initiating long-term conversations about purpose with employees.

It also calls for accelerating efforts to humanise business plans. It is vital to be more humane and to ensure that compassion and understanding remain at the core of all business activities.

Brand humanisation, another key metric, can not only turn employees into goodwill ambassadors but also ensure greater long-term benefits for many businesses. The toughest leadership test is going to be how to bring business back to the pre-Corona normal. It calls for resolve, resilience, return, re-imagination and reform.

Reconstructing the Business Model:

There is no doubt that some organisations will need to reconstruct their business models to be as flexible as these times call for. It is no good being rigid where life calls for flexibility.

Only those organisations which step up efforts will be better off and far more ready to confront the challenges and leverage the opportunities.

Humans naturally evolve. There are of course birth pains we must go through but we are a resilient species which is why businesses need to mirror the society they serve.

Speed will be the biggest differentiator for those who survive these times. Businesses need to position themselves for the long-term so that they can get ahead of the competition.

As HR leaders revisit priorities to leap out of the current crisis, they will be required to put in place a robust performance management system that manages and evaluates employee performance in a remote and virtual working environment effectively.

Organisations can use this moment to reinvent their role and create a better experience for talent, improve collaboration, productivity, and reduce costs. That kind of change will require transformational thinking with employee concern and wellbeing at its core. To ride the change curve, organisations will need to embrace this new normal, plan strategically and execute with urgency.

The more quickly people come together and want to be together, the sooner many businesses and cities will recover but, whilst this is not possible, leaders and offices will need to rethink how they operate to make sure business continues to thrive and their staff remain productive.

There will be a significant increase in work from home permanently which means a gradual end to long-held traditional assumptions about how work should be done. The new workplace will have to create a safe, productive and enjoyable work culture. For the enlightened employers, this could be a win-win proposition.

Businesses should consider focusing on maximising personal growth instead of just efficiency; on progression, not just productivity; and how to better prioritise for themselves and society, not optimise for capitalism. Therefore, priority will have to be given to employee well-being and inclusivity. We must use this crisis to reinvent our roles in the professional field and create a better experience for talent, improving collaboration, increasing productivity and reducing costs.