An increasing number of people are now going back to work after COVID-19, and it was only a matter of time.
Google, for one, recently informed its workforce that it’s accelerating plans to get staff back to the office prior to its initial September 1 return date. Bloomberg also expects its employees to return to the office once vaccinated — and it’s not alone. In fact, 70% of executives have similar plans to get people back in the office by the fall.
Problem is, 54% of employees would prefer to maintain some semblance of their current work arrangement. Although sentiments might change, this currently suggests the need to adopt a hybrid work model where people work both remotely and in the office depending on their preferences.
From a real estate perspective, mass adoption of the hybrid work model would have several ramifications. If businesses go this route, it will likely reduce the demand for commercial real estate. With companies realizing they no longer need a 1-to-1 desk-to-employee ratio, there will be a natural contraction in the absorption of available spaces. This could prolong market recovery for two to four years, depress rents, and force landlords to offer hefty incentives to unload vacant spaces.
It would also change the needs of an office environment. With more people working remotely, teleconferencing technology will be a must for all offices — a potentially expensive undertaking. On top of that, work areas will also change. People will be coming to the office to collaborate with colleagues, which might lead to office layouts containing more private meeting space and lounge areas as well as fewer offices and cubicles. This could raise safety concerns for employees going back to work after COVID-19 and might become a challenge for employers to provide a safe environment for all staff.
How to Prepare for the Future of Work
Even if you do choose to move to a hybrid work model, it’s important to prepare by doing more than offering a simple “welcome back to work” message and continuing with business as usual. The effects of the pandemic will linger for a while, so social distancing, sanitation, and staggered rotations might still need to be offered to provide employees with the comfort needed to return to the office. Here are a few things to keep in mind going forward:
1. Listen to your employees.
Effective leadership requires active listening, and especially in circumstances where employees are transitioning back to work after more than a year’s absence from the physical office space. Inquire about their feelings, actively listen to their thoughts and concerns, and then find ways to collaborate with them to strike a balance.
Maybe your current office doesn’t allow for the best public health practices. You might need to make adjustments or reconfigure the layout for social distancing purposes to minimize anxiety about going back to work. In fact, taking meaningful actions shows you care and can improve employee engagement by as much as 90%.
2. Plan for the long term.
Going back to work after COVID-19 will be a major cultural shift, and you don’t want to put yourself in a position where you’ll need to communicate a different strategy come next year. After all, the office of the future has always been shaped by past events. This situation is no different, so you need to prepare by developing a long-term strategy.
It’s worth it to explore and experiment with new work models that might offer similar flexibility and autonomy as remote work. More importantly, make sure you can digitally support a hybrid work model (should you go this direction) by investing in technology.
3. Evaluate the real estate market and seize opportunities.
One of the more popular workplace trends is downsizing — or really, abandoning massive central offices for smaller locations. This offers a cost benefit and allows employers to more easily abide by public health best practices and ease the transit burden for employees by locating satellite offices in nearby suburbs.
Consider working with a commercial real estate broker to ensure the move supports your long-term strategy. These professionals bring extensive expertise and knowledge of the market and are often aware of real estate opportunities not yet known to the public, making it easier and faster to find the right space for your business.
4. Reevaluate your strategy regularly with data.
Reevaluation is critical to assessing whether any strategy is moving your business closer to its goals. It can also help highlight shortcomings or gaps that might waylay progress. Capture all the necessary data to provide that single source of truth to make informed decisions around next steps.
For example, does the current office space and layout still support productivity? Has workplace satisfaction changed due to a new strategic initiative? Does the increased flexibility or autonomy provide the expected business outcomes? Would fewer days in the office improve or diminish output?
With the right data and metrics, you can monitor almost anything as people get back to work, and then make adjustments from there.
Although the pandemic was a challenge, it does offer an opportunity for many businesses to reconsider what it means to work. Work arrangements are much different than they were even a decade ago, so it’s okay to embrace a change. You might even find a happier, more productive staff on the other side.