Workplace culture is the name of the game. For the past year, we’ve heard a lot about how to keep your workplace culture strong—remotely. Now, as companies welcome employees back to the workplace, they face a new learning curve: keeping productivity strong in a post-COVID-19 world that has dramatically changed views on productivity and how some work can be accomplished.
In 2020, companies found workarounds for employees who could work from home. Many employees had to adjust to their new environments as well. Some dealt with distractions from other household members, and some faced other challenges like anxiety and isolation and struggled to find ways to maximize personal productivity. Others, however, thrived, with work/life balance a reality instead of a talking point.
Now, a shift back to the workplace feels different for everyone, especially if you’re the employer. It’s not the same old office anymore, and all the old rules don’t necessarily apply to the work you’re still needing to accomplish. You may need to rethink priorities and how work is done in the future. And there are a lot more details to work through than simply whether employees should stay remote or not.
If you are about to reopen your workplace to full capacity or already have, here are some ideas to keep in your back pocket to help you foster a positive workplace culture that promotes productivity in our new post-pandemic world.
1. Create Time for FaceTime
During the pandemic, Zoom meetings kept our work teams connected. This produced some challenges as well. Over time, many of us battled what some started to call “Zoom fatigue.”
With so many virtual meetings, many teams began reducing meeting length. This move encouraged them to stay on task and be more efficient, said Julia Austin, an executive fellow at the Harvard Business School Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship.
In one report, Austin also explains that despite technology’s ability to keep everyone connected, teams lost out on those workplace connections. They couldn’t meet up at the water cooler and share ideas or enjoy other impromptu visits. These small interactions can shape a workplace culture and drive employee satisfaction, which fuels productivity.
Fortune 500 executives surveyed in early 2021 counted stronger camaraderie as a big piece of workplace culture going forward. At the same time, Austin says there are ways you can support that camaraderie as well as the efficiency learned from shortening virtual meetings in today’s post-pandemic workplace. It’s something every company should consider, whether their meetings are in-person or remote. Wasted time is wasted time, no matter where you are.
“Post-COVID-19, I encourage leaders to foster the same efficiency with meeting schedules when back in offices, but also to create time blocks, either online or in person, for the random connections that are critical for developing team culture,” she said. “In the office, this could be setting expectations that folks who are onsite are not just there for in-person meetings. Ensure there are times for people to sit together and work or to have more casual connections at hackathons or demo hours so that teams can show their work in process.”
You may have heard self-help gurus talk about scheduling time for yourself. It’s the same thing in the workplace culture today. As an employer, you’re scheduling work time and personal time so employees can talk about their families, life joys, and even things like stress reduction tactics they’ve learned throughout the COVID-19 experience. It all helps to reignite that sense of community employees may have lost in the past year.
2. Reimagine How Work Is Done
It’s also important to be realistic and flexible about accomplishing work. Remember, we’re coming off a year where the entire thinking behind remote work shifted from idea to necessity for companies to survive.
Today, some companies face the fact that certain employees may think their jobs can easily remain remote. And some are right. In fact, according to one survey, about two-thirds of Americans prefer a hybrid work model in a post-pandemic world. In the same survey, nearly half—42% of employees—said they would leave a job if remote work weren’t an option.
Phil Mobley, a researcher with global real estate advisement firm Avison Young, said studies from McKinsey & Company (McKinsey) and the University of Chicago suggest that 25% to 40% of jobs are “highly conducive to remote” work. For companies long known for needing a lot of office space, such as finance, technology, and professional services, that percentage may be even higher.
With these dynamics in place, business owners may need to think differently about completing tasks with these dynamics in place. In a June 2021 report from McKinsey, authors Brodie Boland, Aaron De Smet, Rob Palter, and Aditya Sanghvi highlighted ways to rethink how work should be done while emphasizing that decisions require team input.
“Organizations should identify the most important processes for each major business, geography, and function, and re-envision them completely, often with involvement by employees,” the authors noted.
“Organizations should identify the most important processes for each major business, geography, and function, and re-envision them completely, often with involvement by employees,”
The McKinsey researchers went on to say that when rethinking how work can be accomplished, the process should also take into account employees’ professional development journeys.
For example, some employees who demonstrated increased productivity working remotely during the pandemic may be able to handle a lot of tasks quickly when working from home. Depending on their job requirements and work style, others may benefit from being in the office more at the start of a project but then could transition to a hybrid approach.
The researchers also suggest models where initial planning for a project is done in person, but specific tasks are executed remotely.
3. Put Flexible Office Space to Work
With all of the talk about hybrid work models, you have to think about the best strategies for setting up your office to suit your teams’ needs.
Before the pandemic, open office concepts were hot, and business owners seemed to want more collaborative spaces. These spaces nurture brainstorming and collaboration by having people work closely together and in open areas with few, if any, barriers between them.
They also, however, pose challenges for those needing to concentrate on their work or have private conversations with others. Nonetheless, the trend put an end to the traditional cubicle in some offices, and the thinking is that these environments can still work well in the post-pandemic world—with some modifications, of course.
Today, you must consider the needs of employees concerned about safety. Move forward with the mindset that regular cleaning and access to hand sanitizers are elements that are not going away any time soon. Seek input from employees on things like plastic barriers and mask-wearing, too.
But besides that, it’s time to let that open office concept work for you, said Thomas Qarticelli, a principal with Workplace Studios of Amenta in Hartford, Boston, and New York City.
“A space that can adapt to changes in densification without modification to the furniture or major construction is preferred. Let’s call it ‘futureproofing,’ for lack of a better term,” the architect said. “Less physical walls and more space created by flexible, lightweight, and adaptable furniture or moveable elements enables users to best organize the space based upon their current or future needs.
“Less physical walls and more space created by flexible, lightweight, and adaptable furniture or moveable elements enables users to best organize the space-based upon their current or future needs.
The architect said there will still be a need for people to escape to a private space to do some heavy mental lifting, participate in online meetings, or have private conversations with others. He calls these areas “private, heads-down” spaces.
“The workplace will provide more phone booth-type spaces than were utilized in the past. Traditional offices will be utilized as private areas to work, small gathering places, huddle rooms, virtual meeting rooms, and other uses. All of these types of spaces will be best served as a more open (vs. enclosed) space with acoustical materials to limit sound transmission,” he added.
While keeping an eye on safety and sanitation, some companies may take the approach of using “free-address stations.” Here, employees share workstations instead of having their own dedicated, permanent space. This can support flexibility if you operate with a hybrid model, but you’ll need to stay on top of those sanitation practices.
If you’re preparing a space for more work teams or are in the process of reopening it, it might be a good time for an aesthetic refresh. Pay attention to the office elements that people gravitated to in the past. Take their input on changes, too. You can also give the space a fresh coat of paint or add an accent wall. Think about color psychology and how it can motivate employees to work and collaborate.
4. Create Your Own Multiverse Strategy
Flexibility in how and where work is done will be an ongoing conversation for the coming year or two as workers and employers retrench. The term “multiverse” workplaces are becoming increasingly popular, and there’s a little more to it than being a replacement term for “hybrid” work.
A multiverse strategy involves creating a work situation conducive to employees working in the office or remotely and adding a new layer to individual needs. A recent report titled “The Multiverse of Work” by commercial real estate advisory firm Avison Young takes a deeper look into what multiverse work is.
It reminds us that those with distracting home environments are not conducive to productivity. Add to that, there are commutes to consider. Some live closer to the office than others. Popping in for a quick meeting might be easy for some but a complete deal-breaker for others considering returning to their old jobs or mulling over new positions.
There is no shortage of examples of companies weighing what their multiverse world should look like. Companies such as Google, known for innovation in the workplace, have stated that they expect employees to live close to the office. And while Facebook and Twitter have expressed willingness to consider ongoing remote work for certain employees, tech progressives like Amazon report a more “office-centric” culture going forward.
Combine these different and shifting perspectives, and you have some companies looking at smaller satellite offices instead of one central hub.
“The global financial institution Standard Chartered Group recently cut a deal with IWG (the parent company of Regus) to allow its employees to utilize any of the flex-office provider’s locations for the whole of 2021,” the Avison Young report noted.
5. Empower Team Leaders
As your employees return to the workplace culture and adjust to different work models, they need to know you’re considering their well-being with all of your decisions. But it’s also hard for top leaders to understand every employee’s needs. So, it’s essential to train and regularly communicate with team leaders.
Team leaders will need training on keeping remote, hybrid, and onsite teams connected and engaged with one another. Whether it’s that all-hands weekly meeting done virtually or in-person or individual check-ins, team leaders need to implement strategies, test them, and communicate to management and higher-ups about how team connectivity efforts are going. They will probably also need some level of latitude to adjust tactics as needed.
“Team leaders will be critical to the short-term success of re-engaging the workforce and driving business results. Reinforcing the role of teams and team leaders, and redeploying workers to new teams and new roles, will help foster a sense of agility and, ultimately, lasting resiliency,” researchers said in Deloitte’s Workplace Strategies for Post COVID-19 Recovery.
The way your HR team works may also need to be reassessed, the Deloitte researchers added. Given the heightened demand for employees in specific sectors, pay scales, perks, and benefits (and how to communicate the benefits) may need to be readjusted to meet expectations and productivity goals and address overall employment needs.
6. Think Beyond Knowledge Work
Up to now, we’ve focused mainly on those who fall into the knowledge work universe. But what about someone who might work on the manufacturing floor, in healthcare, or in travel and leisure where work can’t be done remotely or involves closer contact with others?
McKinsey found that jobs requiring physical proximity will be the most disrupted. On the other hand, jobs such as construction or grounds maintenance, where distances can be adjusted easily with decision-making, may have the fewest disruptions.
Given what we’ve learned from the pandemic, business owners and managers will want to keep their eyes and ears open for technology that can help.
One report from MIT Sloan Management Review highlighted how Hitachi created sensors to monitor social distancing in factories. Some companies have even integrated AI and cameras to help keep employees safe. In addition, any processes that can be automated to minimize worker contact may also be considered.
Technologies will continue to evolve, and leaders will consider how some innovations can help with safety and productivity. Be wary of the perception you are monitoring people beyond what is necessary, and be clear about when, why, and how you are doing it.
7. Plan for Uncertainty
We have not only lived through times that disrupted the workplace, but political and social elements have influenced work and productivity in many ways, too. Any business and HR department should have plans to handle potential differences between employees regarding political or social issues.
As a general rule, you can institute rules that limit discussion about polarizing topics like politics. But if discussions venture to wages and workplace conditions, employers are limited by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) as to what can be said and done.
In time, issues related to hybrid remote work models will likely iron themselves out, but political and social tensions can come and go. Creating a plan may require touching base with a labor lawyer to understand how to handle any situations that may arise. Knowing what you can say and do legally can bring peace of mind, and it may be worth the expense of tapping into legal expertise before an issue becomes a problem.
The significant part about creating a productive workplace culture today is that there are a lot of ideas being cultivated to help you. Businesses and researchers are genuinely invested and exploring how the new normal in the workplace will take shape and evolve this year and next.
Ultimately, the decisions you make must be the right ones for your business. It’s a good idea to study what others are doing in your field and read HR and productivity reports as they come out. Everything is changing quickly. Some of today’s decisions may work now, but they may need to shift in the future.
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