PLASTARC’s Elizabeth Hyde predicts that as we return to the workplace, it will be critical to advocate for more purposeful structures and arrangements.
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted drastic changes to our daily lives. It has also revealed opportunities to establish fresh routines, grow comfortable conducting business from our homes, and generally recalibrate our work-life balance. Though time on- and off-the-clock has blurred, workers have adopted wellness-boosting habits and freedoms they will not want to abandon anytime soon: lunch with the kids, mid-afternoon yoga, spontaneous catchups with distant friends, and last-minute tele-appointments, to name a few. These newly discovered freedoms—and maybe even delights—can’t simply be left behind once offices reopen. In fact, we anticipate people will cling tightly to the unexpected benefits that have emerged from this period. In looking to 2021, there is sure to be a steady trend toward workplaces flexing to accommodate these shifting expectations. Spaces will need to be increasingly customized in response to individual needs and preferences.
The disruptions to work-as-usual have ushered in an era of flexibility and autonomy, particularly for those whose occupations allow them to operate outside of traditional offices or business hours. Just a few years back, we cringed at the footage of Professor Robert Kelly, soon to be known as ‘BBC Dad,’ whose children burst into his study, interrupting the ongoing video interview in a manner considered so professionally debilitating it became international news. Today, some of our most respected public figures appear on air in their kitchens with loved ones or pets in the near-ground. This is dispelling long-held conventions that only certain aspects of our identities are suitable to share with consumers, clients, or colleagues. To the contrary, as Zoom calls dominate more of our waking hours, the pressure to hide symbols of domestic existence has all but evaporated. Historically restrictive notions of ‘standards’ and ‘etiquette’ are being challenged. One would be reasonable to hope that the act of juggling dependent care and household duties on top of one’s ‘day job’ is now a feat worthy of both pride and public commendation.
As we return to the workplace, it will be critical to reflect upon what has and hasn’t served us during this extended stretch of remote work…
What the events of 2020 have accomplished, essentially, is to make visible realities that were formerly relegated to behind-the-scenes status. Despite being separate in space, we are all becoming more intimate in this regard, lending credence to the idea that it may be at last acceptable to bring our whole selves to work.
Over the past nine months, people have grown accustomed to designing their schedules and environments around their unique requirements as well as those of their families. Many have received employer support for doing so—with health and safety concerns as the primary justification. They will expect this latitude around when, where, and how work gets done to persist even after we have transitioned out of crisis-mode. Activities like taking a break to walk the dog no longer warrant being carried out in secret or disguised as ‘busy’ blocks in your work calendar, as they might have been previously. We may very well see more companies inviting employees to bring their canine companions in with them, a feature so rare, Amazon marketed it as a cultural differentiator only two years ago. Even the time, effort, and money people were once obligated to spend maintaining an exclusive and narrowly defined ‘professional’ appearance are being reevaluated. For instance, the United Parcel Service (UPS) recently updated rules around grooming to be less prohibitive and more inclusive of their employee base. Similar alterations to guidelines around attire—especially those that are historically gendered, like stockings, or cost-prohibitive, like dry clean-only outfits—could follow suit.
As we return to the workplace, it will be critical to reflect upon what has and hasn’t served us during this extended stretch of remote work, and to advocate for more purposeful structures and arrangements. For some, this could look like hybrid models that offer people greater choice over how they meet the demands of their roles. Others may telework permanently. Right now, employees ought to be developing their self-understanding, experimenting and quantifying which conditions have and haven’t enabled them to do their best work. As for the future, organizations committed to retaining their talent must embrace these insights with a specific focus on translating expressed needs into updated policies and amenities across physical, digital, and social space.