A snapshot taken earlier this year documented a major shift in knowledge work. According to a May survey of U.S. adults who had worked full time in 2019 by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, 42% were working from home all week, 33% were not working at all, and 26% were working on their business’s premises (mostly essential workers).
While 2020 has been a year that many wish to forget, there’s little doubt its legacy for office workers will linger. For the first time, we were a majority work-from-home society reliant on apps, video and digital workplaces, proving beyond doubt that it is possible to work productively from home. But what will we take away from the year that many of us would rather close the door on? Or will we simply return to normal post-vaccine?
If and when we do return to our offices, that doesn’t mean handshakes and communal kitchens. Dr. Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard, believes we will see a total shift in our understanding of infectious disease transmission and the health and hygiene of our indoor environments.
He says: “In 2021, healthy buildings will go from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must have’. Everyone who owns or operates a building has to see themselves as being in the healthcare space. The person who designs and operates your building has a greater impact on your health than your doctor.
“As the country begins to return to work, concerns about the spread of infectious disease will make it easier than ever to invest in the basics of a healthy building, notably around ventilation, air quality, water, moisture, and security.”
Mental health provision
Julie Gurican, senior director of people at learning platform BenchPrep, believes the biggest change will be a deeper understanding that mental health in the workplace falls under the employer’s responsibility to their workforce.
Gurican explains: “Most employees went through some emotional and mental challenges this year. HR leaders will need to continue to lean in on normalizing mental health in the workforce, and make sure employees know that it’s OK to not always be OK at work.”
Gurican adds that management and HR will really have to up their game to keep engagement anywhere near levels reached in offices. For Gurican, that means intentional and driven attempts to build culture.
HR for ‘activist’ workforces
Kia Roberts, founder of misconduct investigation specialists Triangle Investigations, thinks that methods for employees to voice their concerns and processes for reporting issues will need a total overhaul.
She says: “Apps will stand in the gap left when there is no human resources door to go knock on. In this time of financial uncertainty and tightening budgets, the last thing that employers need is the risk associated with costly lawsuits and bad press when allegations of misconduct are not adequately addressed. Cancel culture is damaging and sometimes brutal, and the 2021 workforce is an increasingly activist workforce, with little tolerance for discrimination and other misconduct.”
Roberts says there’s a risk that employers overlook that discrimination, harassment, bullying, and disparate treatment can also happen while their staff works from home.
E-learning & training
Terry Traut, CEO of training provider Entelechy, believes the next big challenge for the workplace that quickly embraced remote and hybrid work practices this year is to develop an effective system for virtual learning. He says webinars and Zoom meetings just won’t generate effects as powerful as in-person training
Traut explains: “In 2021, organizations everywhere will reevaluate their leadership development approaches and explore new, creative, and more effective ways of developing their leaders. Through the right kinds of virtual learning–think role plays in breakout rooms, masterful facilitation, and interactive team activities–leaders can develop the critical skills needed to lead organizations through future challenges.
“Skills like deliberate performance management and coaching will enable leaders to develop resilient, innovative teams capable of adapting and thriving in rapidly-changing business environments to achieve organizational goals.”
Future of the office
But what of the office? While leaders disagree over the possibility of total extinction, there’s a consensus that drop-in office spaces will win the day.
Eric White, president of early-stage growth investor Seismic, says the claims of eternal remote work and the death of the office are overblown. But he does concede that a hybrid arrangement–where employees choose between home and the office as they like–will be likely.
White explains: “While the pandemic has let technology free many employees and employers, the flipside is that elongated isolation leaves many workers craving the human contact and camaraderie of the in-person office environment. There are efficiencies working from the home or remote locations that will continue to evolve however, productivity, team building and joint efforts for achievement are an essential part of our modern business culture.”
Trevor Hubbard, CEO of creative brand consultancy Butchershop, says: “Goodbye office. We gave up our space in San Francisco, betting on the long term expansion of our remote team. This opened us up to pull talent from other markets, with three new members in Los Angeles. It also makes for a smoother transition for international teams, allowing us to open a remote office in Germany.” However, Hubbard also sees the advantages of a collaboration space that employees can use a couple of times a month to ‘play’.
Ernest Lee, managing director of development and investments, Americas for citizenM Hotels thinks business operations will become more decentralized as remote employees move to chase a lower cost of living. This, he predicts, will increase domestic business travel.
He says: “Remote employees will likely visit corporate offices for monthly or quarterly gatherings, as employers look to preserve the known benefits of in-person interactions–relationship building and the development of corporate culture, passive knowledge transfers, active strategic planning and conflict resolution–and smaller and more frequent conferences and events will also become more popular.” In anticipation that hotels will replace offices, citizenM has already started to offer a subscription for employers.
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