Earlier last week, when we received an email about physically coming to work daily, my mind instantly started wondering what the work and office dynamics will be after the pandemic. With the company practicing a staggered board approach earlier, where different teams would come to office on different days to brainstorm and ideate, we were now asked to come on a daily basis as the lockdown was lifted. I immediately started questioning what would the new normal at office would be like, how office space would be and whether there would be a change in the way we interact with our colleagues.
One week later, I can confidently say most of my questions have been answered, not only through articles about practices established globally as people start returning to their workspaces but also through the practices established at my organization. A survey conducted by real estate consultancy JLL stated that 82% of employees surveyed in India would eventually like to return back to their workplaces. Organizations today are striving hard to re-design their work spaces to be able to maintain social distancing and adapt to the new normal. From changes in seating arrangement to changes in interiors and architecture, the organizations are planning out the workspace scenario. The offices that were once designed to be safe during an earthquake or in case of a fire breakout, now also need to be pandemic-proof.
It goes without saying that hygiene should be at the heart of workplace planning once offices resume. Hand sanitizers and tissue boxes in every table or cubicle is a must. Contrary to the popular saying “Out of sight, out of mind”, such products at every corner would ensure everyone to frequently sanitize their hands and surfaces they touch. Pandemic-proofing offices involve short-term fixes, new working techniques as well as long term design upgrades. Environmental changes in the offices should also be encouraged. For instance increasing air flow, changing HVAC filters and enhancing cleanliness regimes are few measures companies can adopt. A strict clear desk policy should be practiced. The seating arrangements are also being re-designed, with adequate space between colleagues who earlier would share tables. Sharing of laptops and machines which were common practices earlier are now being minimized. Companies are following the trend of occupying alternate desks, so that safe distance between two colleagues can be maintained.
Mask to mask meetings
When employees were asked to work from home, meetings started happening virtually on various platforms like Google Meets, Zoom, WebEx to name a few. But anyone who has been on a zoom meeting can vouch for the fact that despite the advancement in technology, engaging with colleagues remains difficult. But now, with companies returning to their offices, meetings will happen like before, with necessary changes in place to follow distancing protocols and reduced frequency. Video conferencing will still be the go-to solution but if required physical masked meetings with limited employees can also be conducted. However, the capacity of the boardroom should be altered. What would previously cater to larger groups of 10-12 should be restricted to 4-5 now.
Virtual water-cooler culture
Offices pre-pandemic had a water-cooler culture where colleagues would gather around the water cooler or the pantry to have a quick chit-chat. This would be a good way for co-workers to catch up and take a short break. However, this culture is not sustainable post pandemic. Now, the culture of virtual meet-ups will thrive. Knowledge series and informal office meetings will also take place over technology. For instance, at Beed even post the lockdown we continued having Knowledge series, which is our weekly meetings where an employee hosts an interactive session educating peers on a certain topic, over Zoom. Post the pandemic, a new era of digital dependence will begin, with workers depending on technology more than ever. In the business landscape whatever can be moved online, will move online.
Focusing on employee well-being
COVID-19 has shown us that we are not at all immune to the wave of anxiety and mental health issues even post the lockdown. The global pandemic has also shone a light on how widespread mental illness is. Over time we must change how we view & deal with mental issues in all aspects of life, and the workplace is without exception. Now while returning to work, a greater connectivity among workforce should be ensured. Activities that prioritize relationship building and facilitate interactions can be adapted through technology, with the addition of virtual mentoring, regular check-ins & lunch catch-ups promoting a sense of community. Similarly, companies can implement an information source portal or source, which provides workers with regular personal and humanized updates- building consistency and trust among teams.
In order to thrive post pandemic, flexible working should be a norm. Companies should incorporate work from home into their regular practices, where one is given the flexibility of working from home if and when required. Companies globally are questioning whether 9-5 is even a question anymore. It is a possibility that, even after reopening, a certain percentage of the workforce continues to telework, partially or fully. Whether this is out of necessity or individual choice, organizations must take care to facilitate the same without stigmatizing or alienating employees.
Some other things that organizations can consider include the following:
- Provide colored wristbands to help employees signal their level of comfort. As people start regrouping again, there will be varying ranges of comfort level with physical proximity and contact. However, some people may find it awkward to let others know their or read other’s greeting preferences. Companies can implement red, yellow and green coloured wrist bands which draw inspiration from traffic signals.
- Staggered board approach employees can be split into cohorts that spend few days in office and few days at home. This will ensure limited occupancy of the office, providing employees with enough space. Also, efforts can be made to ensure the office feels home-like and the home also has a touch of office.
- Touch free fixtures in the long run in pantries and sensored elevators so that human touch is minimized.
However, all this being said, the pandemic has given birth to a question whether office spaces will be another casualty to the pandemic? As the British journalist Frances Cairncross put it in 1997, the Internet meant the “death of distance.” Does the pandemic further strengthen this argument, making offices a little irrelevant? The crisis has shown we have tools to stay connected from mountain tops, or our kitchen tables. The challenge that stands before us today is how do we optimize this space and strengthen the ties that arise from it.
Another question that arises in context of Nepal is, will the pandemic push organizations to put employees and their well-being at the heart of its policies and planning and be the much-needed driver for a more employee centric work place? Ideally, this should be the long-term strategies for companies in Nepal but until then, HRs must ensure a seamless transition to the new normal.
 Calvin Barnett, “Pandemic- proofing: How will the office dynamic change after COVID-19? , 18 June 2020. Retrieved from- https://thiis.co.uk/pandemic-proofing-how-will-the-office-dynamic-change-after-covid-19/
 David McMillin, “Social Distancing Solution: Wristbands Do the Talking for Attendees, 25 June 2020, Retrieved from- https://www.pcma.org/social-distancing-solution-wristbands-attendees/
 Lee Elliot, “ 12 dynamics of the post-COVID-19 workplace, Knight Frank, July 2020, Retrieved from- https://www.knightfrank.co.uk/research/12-dynamics-of-the-post-covid-19-workplace-july-7337.aspx
 Carlo Ratti, “Reimagining the office, The Asean Post, 16 June 2020, Retrieved from- https://theaseanpost.com/article/reimagining-office
Thumbnail picture source: http://Shanghai Baoye Center by LYCS Architecture