How will office work change after COVID-19?
Jöerg Bakschas looks at what we are learning from the COVID-19 crisis
With an almost global shut-down, the public’s awareness of supply chains has significantly increased – with these now disrupted, even large corporations have come to a standstill. The focus has shifted to small industries and individual entrepreneurs that had otherwise functioned as a matter of course. Society is discussing profit-oriented healthcare systems and is painfully aware of what the medical, nursing and carer professions really do!
People’s sense of value has changed fundamentally and the willingness to change has increased. The fact that many people have suddenly found themselves in a kind of isolation has made them realise the influence that direct communication during a real meeting has. The use of virtual meetings, supported by portals such as MS-Teams, WebEx, Zoom, Skye etc., has risen exponentially as they have now become the new norm.
If meetings in an office environment are missing, we turn to emails as a substitute. However, even before the crisis, it quickly became clear how complicated and one-dimensional this form of communication is. We all know the problems with “reading between the lines” and the endless lists of people who are copied in on an email. Even telephone calls are felt to be insufficient if you are used to exchanging information in meetings with the use of presentations, flip charts, boards etc. Only “video conference” conveys a feeling similar to a real meeting. Here the most important point is “to show your face!” Only when I can see my counterparts, I receive important information through gestures and facial expressions. This is an essential element of communication, especially within the topic of “virtual leadership“
But some would say that we have got to know each other better through home office meetings. I have seen a lot of postings and followed web meetings where people felt positive about seeing their colleagues in casual clothes for the first time. You can see, more or less, how the other person lives, you can also talk about private things across departments.
The media say that the pandemic is making us overweight through the increased consumption of “junk food”. Healthy nutrition plus physical and mental fitness should actually be easier to maintain in the home office. However, many people seem to have had problems with this, not only how to keep fit, but also how to make sensible use of breaks and how to organise your free time. However, I noticed that especially the basic things that make up the home office, for many people, have not been implemented.
What was quickly spread in the media under the heading “Tips for the home office” should consist of fixed working hours, business attire and regular morning meetings. This is exactly what those who argued for the home office before the crisis did not want. Of course, a professionally equipped workplace with an office chair and desk should be available. When you work, you don’t eat or play with children or pets; you organise your workday to suit your lifestyle, whilst meeting the needs of your job role. You schedule meetings with colleagues, work in a concentrated manner, but relax, play sports, etc., that’s what makes mobile working so special.
Most companies have learned to go in a new direction, to try new things, even started to rethink their business models.
Questions that used to be discussed at best once in a trendy weekend workshop are now at the top of the agenda: What are the core tasks of the company? Who are our customers and what do they really want? What is the emergency program we need to keep the company alive?
Everyone is concerned for their customers and is trying not to lose them despite the many restrictions and at the same time, people are questioning one’s own culture. In the last few weeks we have seen how creative, especially small companies and self- employed people, have adapted their business models to meet the demands of the changed market conditions.
What does this mean for the future of the office?
Digitilisation has definitely accelerated, it has reached market sectors and companies that had previously dealt with little or none at all. The term “system relevance” will continue to lead to a market shakeout. I am convinced that in this time of restrictions, people have become much more concerned with themselves and the social systems in which they live.
Priorities will shift. For a few weeks the whole world laughed at the hoarding of toilet paper, but it has become clear to everyone how our economic systems work and above all that nothing works without people. People are paying attention to each other again and even competing companies are propagating the “we”.
Adjustments of organisation, workplace, times, accessibility etc., are being put to the test due to the crisis and legislators are now considering new working time models. Because one thing must be clear: mobile working will no longer be the privilege of a small elite, but a matter of course for the majority of office workers. If you look in detail at how most companies have organised themselves in the short term in order to remain competitive during the crisis, it is noticeable that self-organisation has also led to more self-responsibility. The principles of agile working, which have long been known from IT, have become more widespread in recent weeks.
Although the use of virtual meetings is now taken for granted, something has been missed by most employees: The office is a social meeting place. I have already heard from some companies that they are still planning new offices, but that they can certainly imagine that these will look very different than before. They will learn what was good in the crisis, what was bad and what they want to develop in the future. At the heart of it all the workplace will be more flexibility in terms of space and time, multi-spaces and of course, desk sharing.
Companies will be more open to offering mobile working to their employees and want to make the best possible use of resources. One of these is of course the employee, who is already being fought for in the “War for Talent”. I am assuming that the majority of employees will want to continue working mobile in the future. Not always and exclusively, but at least one or two days a week, so they can work in a concentrated and highly productive manner. The office will be more about collaborating and driving innovation through creative meetings. Mobile working not only reduces commuting times, which relieves individual traffic, but also enables people to achieve an improved work-life balance.
Leadership will be lived differently, as trust has inevitably grown during the crisis and people will learn to organise themselves differently in the future. This is made possible not least by the continuing digitalisation. It is now up to the companies to decide how much “distance” we still want after the crisis, and what forms of cooperation with our own employees and business partners should be developed for the future.
This article was written by Jöerg Bakschas who is an independent workspace specialist, change coach and design thinker. He is a member of several European committees working on standards for the office.
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