Re-thinking Office Space in a Post-COVID World

Today’s post comes to us from Chris Mullen, executive director of The Workforce Institute at Kronos.

With the pandemic abruptly closing many office spaces in the United States in March 2020, millions of Americans have been taking part in an unprecedented experiment in working from home. These test cases are primarily white-collar workers, many of whom may have been told for years that they couldn’t work from home as a company policy just as firmly as they were then told that they must. The daily routine of millions has changed (and these folks count themselves lucky with unemployment numbers reaching unprecedented highs) but perhaps even more importantly, their views and the views of their employers on the topic of remote work may have changed as well.

So, it begs the question, what about your company’s office space?

We have always known that some workers could work from home but most companies were reluctant to allow it for a variety of reasons, often based on gut feelings about the value of being in the same space or the discomfort of management and leadership of the company with the idea. The pandemic was a catalyst for the remote worker, proving that for many working from home was not only doable during a crisis, but a viable option going forward.

Indeed, even in these early days, several major employers have already announced that they intend to allow employees to work from home indefinitely and many more are, I’m sure, wrestling with this issue as I write these words.

Going forward, as companies think about when and whether to re-open their office space, leaders should be cognizant that a seismic shift has occurred. Employers should not assume that all employees want to work full-time in an office again, nor that they want to stay working remotely full-time either.

Companies need to be thoughtful and intentional about their office space. It can no longer be, “This is the way we’ve always done it.”

I’d recommend all employers develop and deploy a survey NOW to uncover how their employees feel about coming back to work – both short-term, as we deal with COVID-19 – and in a post-COVID world. What’s an ideal schedule for each employee? How effective can they be at their job from home? What are their family obligations – not only for school-aged children but also for ageing parents and grandparents? What should office space look like? Should it be mostly conference rooms with the understanding that solo work can be done just as well at home?

SHRM, McKinsey and The Harvard Business Review have some great thoughts on developing surveys.

Anecdotally, in my conversations with colleagues at Kronos and friends at various companies, I am hearing that there is a wide variance in every organization. Some employees are very productive working from home while others are looking for that time back in the office to reclaim their productivity. Some managers are totally comfortable managing from afar while others are really struggling to feel connected. Some organizations are open to re-thinking their policies while others want to get back to business as usual.

My guess is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The important thing for organizations to realize is that change is here. Conversations and planning about how to deal with that change should be happening now so that you aren’t caught flat-footed when things return to whatever the new normal is. HR should be leading the charge, and everyone should take into consideration the desires of the employees, the needs of the business and the productivity of both. 

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