Reimagining work in the era of COVID-19

A return to the office benefits employees and companies. New research outlines how to make it work



The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to think about how we work and what we value in a workplace. Prior to the pandemic, just 3.4 percent of Americans worked from home. But at the peak of the shutdown, an Upwork report in partnership with MIT found that nearly half of the U.S. workforce was working remotely. Today, the question in every sector is whether there will be a permanent change in the way businesses, workers, and customers think of the workplace.


The office will continue to be important for many companies and workers, and the benefits of an office environment—such as training, mentorship, and collaboration—remain as essential as ever. With a viable vaccine still likely months away, how can we realize the upsides of an office environment while keeping employees safe and healthy? One of the most important lessons learned is that both companies and workers desire flexibility, and the office space will need to adapt.

Should we return to the workplace?

CEOs and business leaders, from Google’s Sundar Pichai to Accenture’s Julie Sweet, have spoken about the importance of the office: In-person interaction matters for innovation, relationships, culture, and more. In fact, an April 2020 McKinsey report found colocated teams have an easier time building trust and making decisions quickly. This is likely because people prefer to communicate complex information face-to-face, a Brookings Institution report found.

Employees want to get back into the office. In a May 2020 CivicScience poll of the New York City metro area, the number of respondents saying that (barring safety concerns) they would prefer to work in the office at least part of the time was more than double the number who said they would prefer to stay fully remote.


The majority—76 percent—of respondents said they felt an office setting was “very important” or “somewhat important” for collaboration and innovation. Roughly one-third of respondents said they felt America’s long-term innovation and ingenuity would eventually suffer if many companies continue to work remotely.

The training and mentorship of an office environment may be most important for those just beginning their careers; large percentages of millennial and Gen Z workers report feeling less connected to coworkers or are having difficulty communicating as a result of remote work, according to a survey by Smartsheet. Ensuring that everyone has a seat at the table can be difficult over videoconferencing, and “Zoom fatigue” is real.


A flexibility framework for returning safely to the office

As employers begin planning to bring tens, hundreds, or thousands of employees back to the office, there are three dimensions to consider: space, geography, and time.


Space

Employees will need to feel safe when they are in the office. This means creating space to spread out and ensuring clean and sanitary work conditions.

This means “de-densified” office space with “professional distancing” that is in line with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local authorities. This includes considering the appropriate square footage per employee and adjusting desks to ensure a safe distance between each employee.

“De-densifying” office space will also require a reimagination of common areas and how people interact and move around the office. This might lead to improved ventilation, larger conference rooms, new kitchen protocol, one-way pathways, and reduced capacity in elevators. Enhanced cleaning protocols and the ubiquitous availability of hand sanitizer and disinfecting supplies will be essential.


Geography

In the CivicScience poll of the NYC metro area, 70 percent of respondents said they preferred an office space within walking distance of their home. More than half—55 percent—of respondents said they would feel “somewhat” or “very” uncomfortable commuting into the office before there is a vaccine for COVID-19.

To reduce commutes for employees, company footprints will need to be dispersed, with office locations spread across cities to meet people closer to home. Some call this the hub-and-spoke model: Companies and organizations have a centralized “hub” office with dispersed “spoke” offices across the city in neighborhoods where employees live.

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