Will We Ever Return to the Office or is Remote Working a Permanent Reality?

The question on everyone’s lips right now is, how do we return to work safely while still in the middle of a pandemic? And it’s a huge question! Employers need to ensure that their staff are safe and protected. Putting employees at risk for the sake of profits will have negative implications on reputations and employer brands, not to mention the guilty conscience leaders would have should anything go wrong. No matter what industry, it’s undeniable that safety and compliance with health guidelines are of paramount importance for employers right now.

Those working in industries that can’t work from home have been advised to return to work to help boost the economy. Employers in these industries are working tirelessly to ensure their employees have the essential protection needed and can work safely while practising social distancing, no matter what their job or seniority.

However, during the coronavirus crisis, almost half of the workforce has been able to work remotely with minimal effects on their business, raising questions about their future.

How do we return to work safely in limited spaces like offices?

If and when offices do return to work, they’ll have to undergo significant changes. It will no longer be the office environment we know. Organisations may have to limit the number of employees in the building at one time to minimise the risk of employees catching COVID19; it’s expected that many offices will be reduced to just 25% occupancy. This means business leaders will have to consider working on a rotation of shifts, raising questions of schedules and who needs to be in work at the same time for increased productivity. It also means that the vast majority of the workforce will still work remotely at least some of the time, so a strategy must be put in place

The main point of being in the office is that all your colleagues are together. You can socialise, form friendships and enjoy general chit chat. In the office collaboration between individuals and teams is easy, if there is a misunderstanding it can be cleared up easily by asking a question rather than an email or call and being together as a company creates a friendly and united culture. Social distancing measures may mean that having all your employees together won’t be possible for a long time, so will this change the dynamic of the office? How will you provide a united front when employees are divided between work and home? Will your employees want to come back to a company culture that feels dramatically different?

Upon return to the office, communal areas and kitchens may be made out of bounds to keep people safe as well as bathroom restrictions put in place. Staff will be wearing masks, practising social distancing and even undergoing tests upon arrival at work until a vaccine is created. Meetings will have to be primarily run through video conferencing to allow for social distancing and to ensure all parties can be involved safely. There will need to be frequent deep cleans and new hygiene procedures to ensure workplaces are sanitised, hands are washed, and employees are safe. Some offices may even look at implementing screens and protective equipment, which may prove more costly and time-consuming.

These changes are likely to impact the mental health of employees; it’s a massive transformation from the normal and will require a lot of adaptation from everyone in the business. Queuing for tests to enter the building or to make a socially distant cup of coffee will mean even simple tasks feel strange. Even the commute to work is about to become a lot more daunting; with some choosing to walk and adding time to their day and others forced onto public transport where risk is high.

Will Working From Home Become the New Normal?

Announcements that TwitterShopify and Square employees will have the option to work from home forever as a result of COVID-19 has disrupted the business world. With Google and Facebook already extending work-from-home policies to run into late autumn or even early next year, many are beginning to question the possibility of a permanently remote workforce. With the logistics, time and organisation involved in helping employees to return to work safely combined with the mental implications of working in a sterile and socially distant environment, it’s not surprising that employers are looking at working remotely as a permanent solution.

Working from home has its merits. Workers can enjoy the benefit of no commute, saving them time and money, as well as flexibility in working hours. It makes childcare easy and gives the ability to balance daily life with work. With modern technology, many businesses haven’t noticed a decrease in productivity, and 77% of remote employees say they’re more productive when working from home. Plus, during a pandemic, the most vital thing to remember is working from home keeps employees and their loved ones safe.

However, working from home during COVID-19 was never intended to be a long-term or permanent solution. Employers must remember that there’s a difference between making something work as a temporary fix and adjusting to a completely remote workforce forever. Many employees love going to work; they like having a routine, socialising with others and the mental separation between work and home. If working from home becomes a permanent fix, companies will have to find a way to enforce team spirit and address issues of loneliness that employees who live alone may face. For some, working from home permanently could raise as many mental health concerns as drastic changes to the office environment, so considerations will need to be made.

It’s thought that the coronavirus has merely accelerated trends that were already underway. Companies were looking for ways to cut their spending on office space before COVID19, and many workers have been keen to work remotely for a while as it gives them more control. Technology like Zoom and Microsoft Teams already make us able to collaborate with clients and offices in other locations at the touch of a button, enabling remote work to become a real viable solution for many.

Mark Zuckerberg has claimed that half of Facebook employees will work from home in the next ten years, and his plans for a remote workforce are already underway. Facebook will instate hubs in major cities in the US – rather than offices – for employees to meet and connect as and when they please. These hubs will also provide a geographical focus for recruitment. Facebook has already discussed adjusting salaries based on the cost of living in different cities, to avoid employees taking the option to work from home and relocating for financial gain. In an internal survey, almost 60% of Facebook employees said they’d prefer to move if they could work from home permanently, which raises many questions about the future of the workforce and cities that rely on business and office workers.

Which is the right way of working post-COVID?

Whether a company feels it can be productive outside of the office depends entirely on the nature of the business, the leadership style and how safe they can make their facilities. For some, working from home will be a more viable option and will cause less disruption now that employees have become used to the idea. Others may thrive in a team environment and bringing employees together to work as one. It’s a question of what will work for individual organisations and the people within them.

What we do know; however, is that we can’t go back to life before the pandemic and our ways of working will have to adapt to the new normal. Whether it means heading back to the office and getting used to new procedures or bracing ourselves for a world of working remotely, we know that change is afoot. The way businesses decide to adapt to a post-COVID working environment will take a lot of consideration and planning from leaders. Putting safety procedures in place, engaging staff to embrace the new normal and refining EVPs to match changing attitudes will be among the challenges. These decisions will take time, which means for many of us, we can look forward to Zoom meetings for a lot longer.