Coronavirus (COVID-19), HR Management & Compliance

Stop Retrofitting the Office, and Start Rethinking It

Modern offices first took off during the Industrial Revolution, when a sudden surge of new industries required centralized workplaces to transact business—most of it paper-based.

Source: Kelleher Photography / Shutterstock

As manufacturing grew, so did the number of available products on the market—and the number of agencies to market those products. Offices took on the additional role of innovation hubs: a space to brainstorm product campaigns, whiteboard new ideas, and collaborate with colleagues. And the office as we know it was born.

But technological advancements in more recent history have eliminated the need to file paper documents or jot down ideas on dry-erase boards. Client and coworker communication has become streamlined as telephones gave way to e-mail and e-mail gave way to Slack. The simple fact of the matter is that business is no longer transacted in offices. It’s transacted from your laptop at the airport or your smartphone in line at the grocery store.

So while the way we’ve worked has changed dramatically over the past 300 years, the place we work hasn’t. Recent additions like spaces dedicated to employee recreation and well-being (game rooms, on-site gyms, beer on tap, etc.) mostly seem like attempts to keep us coming to the office, as so much white-collar work can be done from anywhere now.

The coronavirus pandemic presents a rare opportunity to stop retrofitting new modes of work onto old models of space and start rethinking the office’s utility altogether. Like the launch of Ford’s first moving assembly line and the advent of the World Wide Web, we’ll very likely look back at this time and recognize it as a pivotal moment in the history of work. Leaders should leverage this unique opportunity to envision an entirely different place of work.

Our ‘Love/Hate’ Relationship with Working from Home

Rethinking where we work requires identifying what’s working—and what’s not—with the current model. In speaking with employees around the globe at my company, I heard that many are having an extremely positive experience working from home.

One of the biggest benefits they’ve identified is the ability to simply enjoy more of life. Without a commute, employees are spending more time with their families, cooking, exercising, reading, and enjoying the outdoors. Many have started taking midday walks; one VP-level associate even told me they had no idea how nice it was outside this time of year.

Of course, there have been some drawbacks to working from home. While many have experienced a better work/life balance, working parents are struggling with the demands of work and unexpected, full-time child care. Others are feeling isolated and lonely with the loss of in-person socialization in the office. Those with more repetitive duties are questioning the true purpose and meaning of their roles. Unfortunately, many leaders fail to contextualize these struggles, viewing them as marks against remote work.

In general, it’s not so much that people have a love/hate relationship with working from home. They love working from home but hate the impact of the pandemic. Many of the current challenges—childcare responsibilities and increased feelings of isolation—can be directly attributed to COVID-19. But some of the other challenges—finding purpose and blurred work/life boundaries—can be addressed without sending people back to the office (where these serious issues existed long before the pandemic).

Looking Inward Before Looking Ahead

Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, most businesses have transitioned to remote operations fairly seamlessly. And according to McKinsey research, 41% of people currently working from home report they’re actually more productive than they were before the pandemic.

Another 28% report they’re just as productive. Not only do 80% of those surveyed say they enjoy working from home, but the quality of their work also is just as good—if not better—than it was in the office. So what does all of this mean for the future of work?

That decision largely comes down to executive leaders. Don’t waste this pivotal moment trying to retrofit new ideas onto outdated models. Start by looking inward before looking ahead.

  1. Listen to your employees. Instead of telling employees what’s best for them, ask what’s best for them. Anonymous surveys are a great way to gather candid feedback, especially at a time when many employees may be wary of sharing key challenges for fear of losing their work-from-home perks.
  2. Acknowledge mental health. Be sure to categorize experiences by work (outcomes) and mental health (feelings) when you survey your employees. For example, ask employees how productive they are from home and what external stressors they’re experiencing. Those with higher non-work-related stress may report being less productive, but that’s not necessarily because they’re working from home. No matter the results, continuously engage in mental health conversations with all your employees, and make support resources available.
  3. Let go of old conceptions. Business leaders may be tempted to push the return to the office after the pandemic, saying things like “collaboration can only happen in person” or “team culture is stronger in the office.” I would encourage these leaders to look inward. Given all the technological advances we’ve made already—and the many more to come as a result of our current work environment—do you really believe we can’t collaborate and build culture remotely? Or is this just the way it’s always been done and you’re resistant to change?
  4. Think outside the cubicle. While I would discourage businesses from simply adopting flexible work-from-home days, which is yet another example of retrofitting new concepts onto old models, a flexible policy could be a good stepping stone toward your ultimate future workplace. And even after transitioning to fully remote work, it can make sense to incorporate some in-person touch points that fit with the new model. Consider establishing a small in-person hub that can be booked for highly collaborative activities. Or use the overhead saved on real estate to fund quarterly all-staff retreats. Additionally, instead of making definitive statements about the future of your workplace, admit to your employees that the future is evolving and you’re willing to both experiment and change to ensure their happiness and productivity.

While many business leaders may be tempted to return to the old ways, ask yourself: If you could dramatically improve your employees’ experience at no detriment to your business, why wouldn’t you seize that opportunity? It may be time for us to shift our focus from the future of work to the future of the employee.

Jacqueline Anderson has 13 years’ experience in Human Resources and has worked throughout Australia, as well as internationally. Since joining Nintex, she has taken on a key advisor role for engineering and research and development teams and runs an innovative HR and Facilities department across seven countries. She plays an active role in helping Nintex integrate acquisitions mindfully and successfully. Anderson has a passion for the critical role HR plays in the fast-paced software industry, as well as a strong interest in the future of work and how HR can be the driving force behind it.