What does the word “work”, mean to you?
Because of our experiences during 2020/21, it’s hard to even tell anymore. Because in this strange pandemic era, we all have very different experiences of the workplace.
Some workers have returned to a central location, some might drop in sometimes, and some haven’t gone back at all. But here is what we do know: Whenever you do go back to your workplace, what you see will not be exactly as you remember it.
Things are going to be very different!
The immediate reaction in March 2020 was, ‘Everyone can work from home. Let’s do this all the time!’
Now I believe the pendulum has swung the other way.
People really miss going to a place they call – work!
So, what will this reimagined workplace look like? It might mean thinning out the crowd: Removing tables and desks, reducing density, and spacing out workstations to comply with virus-related safety protocols.
You might see more collaborative workspaces, with fully loaded videoconferencing options to link up in-person and work-from-home staff. You might see more usage of mobile apps, to stagger and facilitate shared issues like parking, or conference-space booking, or even lunch.
You might see increased use of outdoor space. You might see a more distributed approach to offices—instead of one big central location. There may even be a tilt towards multiple smaller workplaces dotted throughout metro areas.
There will also be changes you don’t see, such as all the improvements being made behind the walls. Things like air flow, heating, and new cleaning protocols. These modifications may not be visible to the naked eye but will definitely change your experience of the workplace.
Returning to work in the new normal with COVID-19 will also require upping our game in relation to social as well as possibly medical action. Work is good for us, and we need to get back to good, safe jobs. Managers can provide workplace support, with referral to occupational health (OH) professionals when necessary. OH, professionals support the well-being of workers, preventing ill-health, providing independent advice to organisations, facilitating steps to reduce sickness absence, and controlling infection risks.
Here are 5 simple steps to identify and support those in need of help:
- Early contact that is positive and caring.
- Use conversation starters to establish rapport and discuss problems.
- Identify specific obstacles to return to work e.g., personal, health, workplace.
- Agree a return-to-work plan to overcome specific obstacles – who needs to do what, when?
- If obstacles are too complex, refer to occupational health (OH) for help.
Distributed offices and rotating days
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many are heralding the end of the open-plan workplace and the return of small, private offices. Huddle rooms, for example, could be used as offices until social distancing protocols are relaxed.
In addition, shunning a crowded central hub for a distributed set of smaller offices that may be closer to where staff live could mean less exposure to infectious diseases like Covid-19 on public transport. “Having small groups of people working collaboratively would address the need for connections and improved mental health, but without risking massive exposure, where one person gets the virus and everyone else has to self-isolate”.
In the short-term, it seems likely that many of us will remain working from home even after the easing of restrictions. A staggered workforce may become standard, with smaller groups coming in on alternate days and shifts that avoid transport rush-hour peaks.
We ‘work’ because we enjoy coming together to create ideas and solve problems.
There are those who can benefit from home working such as working mothers and those who live far from major towns and cities and have struggled to find work. But commentary about the office becoming redundant is overblown. Yes, most of us work to earn money, but we also work because we enjoy coming together to create ideas and solve problems. That’s what we’ve all been missing!
Offices that resemble hospitals.
In the longer term, experts predict that society’s heightened awareness of contagious diseases could usher in a new type of office – one that has elements in common with a hospital.
- The material that workplace furniture is made from. Can it be cleaned using caustic products?
- Porous surfaces like wood will be avoided – with stone or laminates being preferred.
- Carpets and floor coverings will be able to cope with heavy shampooing.
- Tenanted properties will have to be cleaned more often as landlords will be required to do so.
- Air filtrations systems that ensure the air is cleaned for everyone on a regular basis – i.e., during the night.
- Sinks – everywhere! The new normal will be designing offices with sinks not just in bathrooms but where you can handwash everywhere.
Privacy versus self-regulation
Another concept that may emerge is the ‘contactless office’ – something experts predict could become widespread among organisations who can afford it.
For example, employees could eliminate the need to press communal buttons by using their smartphone to send a command to the elevator or staff coffee machine. Conference rooms could be fitted out with voice-activated technologies to control lighting, audio, and visual equipment. Passing through doors or flushing the toilet would require a simple wave, while self-service in office kitchens could become a relic of the past, to be replaced with automation or a dedicated server.
Whatever happens in the months ahead, it seems likely that the experience of living through a pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on the way we work and how our workplaces function. If nothing else, the idea of coming to work while sick could become socially unacceptable. On the other end of the spectrum is a focus on health and hygiene so pronounced that it gives new meaning to the idea of working in a sterile environment.