Navigating Your Future Workplace: A Roadmap for Re-return to Office

Elizabeth Hyde of PLASTARC offers 10 strategies for our re-return to the office. 

When we published the first version of our Return to Office roadmap, most organizations had gone virtual overnight out of necessity. Decision-making capabilities were limited by the tightest of time constraints, against a backdrop of incomplete information about the coronavirus itself. Meanwhile, the world erupted into questions: Are masks really effective? How long can germs linger on communal surfaces? Does the “six-foot rule” apply outside, or just indoors?

Before the pandemic emerged, much of what made a workplace run occurred behind the scenes: facilities management oversaw heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), while HR dictated official attendance policies. It’s unlikely those based in other departments paid much attention to particulate filtration or employee density. Yet in a matter of days, this language had entered our vocabularies, fueling discussions of subjects ranging from safety standards for buildings to location flexibility as the new default.

Though this public health crisis has most obviously posed a physical threat to society, its mental impact cannot be overstated. Now that best practices surrounding social distancing are firmly established, compliance and forward progress will hinge largely upon mindset. The months ahead will therefore prove critical from a culture and communications standpoint. Phrased aspirationally, each exchange in the workplace—whether digital or face-to-face—has the potential to foster personal and environmental wellness. And shouldn’t that be the goal?

Here, we offer 10 strategies for traversing this uncharted territory:

1. IDENTIFY YOUR “WORKPLACE WHY”

What is the purpose of gathering folks in close proximity? Ideally, it invites meaningful interactions, strengthens relationships, and enhances performance. This sequence assumes that, once convened, colleagues are united by a shared mission and eager to engage in cooperative work. While there’s no denying the value of human bonding following such an extended period of isolation, we’ve also wised up to just how many meetings #shouldhavebeenanemail. As a result, the role of the office as a container for all activities carried out during “business hours” can no longer be assumed. Instead, it’s morphing into something more akin to that of a conference center—a central hub that people travel to with the explicit intention of connecting and collaborating. To this end, you may hear more and more the phrase, “on-site is the new off-site.”

2. ASSESS PREFERENCES—ORGANIZE OFFICE ELEMENTS ACCORDINGLY

There is no single storyline. Some employees have thrived at home, enjoying freedoms around everything from acoustics to quality time with loved ones. Others are looking for their workplaces to provide a retreat from those very things (dogs barking! child guest appearances!). Avoid trying to guess who’s in which camp. This is the moment to ask, directly. Send out a survey to gauge individuals’ desires and concerns regarding why, how, and when to head into the office. Then, coordinate with managers to determine team-specific needs and requests. Compiling these details is the first step toward projecting occupancy figures and updating layouts to accommodate them.

3. GET READY TO MANAGE SPACE DYNAMICALLY

My workplace is a living pilot. Let this be your new mantra. Gone are the “set it and forget it” methods of the past, whereby offices got extensive (and expensive) upgrades every decade or so. Today, organizations can enable responsive, continuously-evolving environments, as opposed to remaining stagnant between large-scale overhauls. How? One route capitalizes on the vast stores of sensor data captured via features like room-booking platforms, badge-swipe tracking, and equipment-utilization monitoring. While many invested in tech-integration pre-COVID, it’s since become a tool for staggering employee schedules and cleaning rotations—and may assist with contact tracing if preventative measures fall short. More broadly, user metrics can be analyzed to reveal opportunities for spatial improvements and even time-sensitive behavioral interventions.

4. HIT REFRESH TO MEET NEW DEMANDS

Offices weren’t exactly fully-occupied prior to March 2020. By most estimates, half of all workspaces sat vacant. A growing number of companies were experimenting with phasing out traditional desk assignments in favor of alternatives like activity-based working (ABW). Still, plenty persisted in advocating for butts-in-seats rather than stopping to consider what the empty chairs might have been signaling. This pervasive misalignment between people’s space consumption and the real estate allocated for it is old news to industry experts. To the average employee, however, the idea that workstyles and space typologies exist on a spectrum is a relatively novel one. All the more reason to welcome fresh perspectives by soliciting feedback: How do your job functions shape your routine? Who’s heard of neighborhoods, and should we institute them here? Would you endorse designating a quiet zoneif so, where does it belong? The most efficient way to curate an environment that ‘flexes’ to serve its community members is to involve them in envisioning changes from the get-go.

5. CONSTRUCT A [FAIR] HYBRID MODEL

Planning for an uncertain future will mean employers continue optimizing for telework while transitioning back to in-person operations. “Hybridity” describes an organizational design that leverages both approaches over the long-term. Its implementation demands careful attention to fairness in relation to employees’ positioning and perceived competence. Left unchecked, these factors easily give rise to unintended power differentials. Put plainly, if some people are “off-site,” while others are “on-site,” their respective access to resources will be unequal. This can negatively affect work quality, which in turn may be mistakenly attributed to a lack of individual effort or ability, when in fact, unknown situational variables are at play. By the same token, the distinction between being present versus absent from the office produces disparities in visibility. Consequently, those whose contributions are observed firsthand often receive greater recognition than their out-of-sight counterparts. Thus, they may be top-of-mind when it comes to the kinds of promotions or awards that drive career advancement. An inclusive hybrid model is one whose infrastructure anticipates and solves for these issues by upholding parity of workplace experience between the physical and digital realms.

6. REINFORCE EQUITY

It seems counterintuitive, but the path to ensuring collective equity begins by honoring individuality. For instance, open vacation allotments with no enforced minimum or maximum are one way to reflect a corporate understanding of people’s diverse lives and priorities. Another is to offer customizable benefits, such as wellness reimbursements to be used at the employee’s discretion for expenses like massages, meditation apps, and gym memberships.

Additionally, management styles may need to change to match new business structures so that supervisors who work primarily in-office are supervising primarily in-office employees while primarily remote employees are supervised by primarily remote managers. This can guard against over-weighing the contributions of in-office versus remote employees. Virtual onboarding poses a dilemma for new hires trying to obtain the guidance, immersion in company culture, and access to equipment that builds both confidence and interpersonal relationships. To close these gaps, send any at-home office gear as soon as the contract is signed, rather than waiting for the employee’s start date, and assign a “buddy,” to contact informally with questions and concerns. Breaking up virtual onboarding over a longer span can ward off Zoom fatigue, as can recording short video tutorials which may then be referred back to, unlike a one-time livestream. 

With hybrid models, we should consider redefining KPIs in terms of transparency, communication skills, and self-discipline instead of raw numbers. How well do workers relay their availability and predicted task completion? If an employee is taking long workday breaks but accomplishing more at night, are they still completing deliverables on time?

7. RITUALIZE WFX PRACTICES

To kick start the conversation around remote collaboration, ask each team member to outline their unifying core values, followed by their personal commitment to abiding by those values–in other words, how can they be counted on to “show up” from wherever they are?

Co-creating a list of essential tools (Asana, Slack, Google docs, etc.) and standardizing regular processes (i.e. Monday’s team meetings will always happen on Zoom for document sharing, but cameras aren’t required to be on) can help everyone stay organized and be in the right virtual place at the right time. How-to’s for offering feedback, resolving conflict, gauging success, and celebrating achievement should also be on the agenda.

8. EDUCATE, COACH, PREPARE

Your people have likely let go of the prospect of a “return to normal,” but they still deserve to know what it is they’re returning to when (and if) office doors reopen. Employers should expect to field a range of inquiries leading up to this milestone: How can I read about our hygiene protocols? Where is my team permitted to eat? Which amenities will stay closed for now?  Once these are codified, tangible reminders can keep everyone on the same page. Enter wayfinding—a navigation system that draws on visual cues and landmark-based principles to orient occupants within a building. Incorporating signage of this nature can initiate a spatial “reset” by literally showcasing new workplace norms. It can also reduce some of the confusion sparked by introducing unfamiliar rules in once-familiar contexts.

9. ESTABLISH CLEAR EXPECTATIONS

As we embrace hybrid and telework work permanently, well-articulated expectations–from employee and employer alike–will be the name of the game.

Is there a set amount of hours workers need to be in the office? How, why, when, and for whom might this vary? Will we be adopting new modes of working, such as ABW? What do good citizenship behaviors look like in that setting? What is the etiquette around meeting attendance? If one person joins remotely, should everyone else follow suit?

Ultimately, people must be empowered to “self-manage,” set boundaries, and make smart choices about their own wellness. Organizations can support them in this undertaking by clarifying daily responsibilities, demonstrating respect for autonomy where appropriate (e.g., allowing individuals to indicate their “unreachable” hours), and doing so uniformly through policy.

10. LEARN FROM LIVED EXPERIENCES

Employees may need help making sense of all that has happened to one another since the onset of the pandemic. Several frameworks have already been proposed, such as McKinsey’s five-stage conceptualization: resolve, resilience, return, reimagination, and reform. Thinking back to the beginning, most of us sought clarity from authorities regarding recommended actions. As survival mode gave way to lifestyle adjustments, the focus shifted to generating optionality and developing coping mechanisms to protect against chronic stress and burnout. At this juncture, we find ourselves in somewhat of a liminal state—still grieving what has been lost during this challenging stretch of history, yet receptive to creating more sustainable structures than those we were forced to abandon. Leaders are being called to acknowledge that this process must be a participatory one, and it starts with ear-to-the-ground listening: Where are your people coming from, where do they want to go next, and how might you get there together?

We’re in the midst of a massive transformation as society reevaluates what it means to be a worker. We can expect frustration and missteps along the way. But there will also be victories. Right now, we have an invitation to remake corporate culture into something less institutional and more human-centered. The biggest misstep of all would be to overlook this opportunity for proactive change only to later scramble to catch up retroactively. This movement is bigger than any one company. It’s being propelled by employee demand, and forward-thinking organizations are the ones that will prevail.

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