Eventually, the COVID-19 pandemic will end and the world will return to normal. But it’s not likely to be the same normal as before the pandemic — too many things have changed and too many lessons have been learned for things to return to exactly the way they were. Where people work, and how, has changed as much as anything, and it’s hard to imagine a return to pre-pandemic practices.
So, what will the post-pandemic office look like? Here are a few possibilities to keep in mind as the new working environment evolves in response to the experiences of COVID-19.
Things will never be the same
That’s the underlying theme here. It’s unlikely that things will ever return to the way they were before the pandemic started. Too many people and organizations have experienced remote work, and while the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 might be tamed at some point, the lesson has been learned that another could strike at any moment.
That means that despite how many people continue to work remotely, the office itself will undergo significant changes. The following are just a few ways offices might be different when remote workers resume their commute.
Remote work is here to stay
The pandemic’s most significant impact is the number of people who have been newly exposed to remote work. Millions of workers who had never worked from home made the transition overnight. For some, the experience was quite jarring, and for others, it was liberating.
That means that once people are free to return to the office, many might rush back while just as many might decide that they like the remote option. And a significant percentage of workers — up to 72% in the US, according to one study — might prefer a mix of remote and office work.
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Offices might stay the same size, but they’ll house fewer people
It’s not necessarily true that companies will downsize their office space in response to more remote workers. Instead, they might redesign them to accommodate many of the practices in place during the pandemic. Cubicles might not be packed so closely together and they’ll likely incorporate more walls and partitions, and there might be less clutter and more open space to make it easier for people to maintain their distance.
That means that offices might house fewer workers. As mentioned above, this can be due to a segment of the workforce that continues to work remotely on a full-time basis and some that split their time between home and the office. Workers who remain in the office throughout their workweek might be in the minority.
Offices will pay more attention to environmental factors
Companies will implement technologies to better filter the air and will implement technologies to kill airborne microbes, including UV lights built into HVAC systems. Air purifiers will become as common as water coolers, and hand sanitizer will be everywhere. Thermometers will be ubiquitous, as companies monitor their employees’ temperatures to catch any infections early.
Office designs will undergo significant changes as well, including innovative concepts like one-way hallways that ensure people don’t need to pass by each other in close proximity. Also, we’ll see more touchless technologies, like doors that open automatically when they sense a person ready to enter a room and lights that turn off when they sense nobody is present and turn back on when someone walks in. Not all of these are new technologies — we’ve had touchless faucets and soap dispensers in bathrooms for years, for example — but they’ll be more widely adapted.
Simply put, the post-pandemic office will be better prepared to respond to the next airborne virus, and that’s a good thing.
Collaboration will become a competitive advantage
We’ve seen a surge in tools to enable better collaboration between far-flung workers. Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype, and a host of other solutions have become some of the most important software used in companies today, and that’s unlikely to change post-pandemic.
In fact, companies that are good at merging physical spaces, like conference rooms, with collaboration tools that can bring remote workers into the process will be the most successful. In addition, those that manage to use these tools to make remote workers feel like important parts of the team will also gain a competitive advantage — working remotely can be isolating, and anything an organization can do to bring people closer together, even electronically, will make them more efficient and maintain happier and more productive workforces.
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Flexibility will become HR’s most important attribute
Companies will need to be willing to work more closely than ever with employees in determining where they spend their time — remotely or in-office. As stressed throughout, numerous employees have been exposed to a new way of working, and many of them will be reluctant to return to commuting five days a week.
The more flexibility a company provides its workers in this respect, the happier they’ll be and the higher their productivity will rise. There are limits to this flexibility, of course — not every position lends itself to full- or even part-time remote work — but where a company can, allowing workers to choose their preferred environment will be a real asset in employee retention.
This flexibility could also extend to working hours. Companies might implement more flex-time arrangements so that fewer employees are in the office at one time. The same goes for remote workers, but for different reasons — accommodating family schedules will become more common, as parents struggle to balance childcare with work. That challenge could be significantly reduced by allowing workers to stagger their schedules with their spouses.
The home office will become an extension of the corporate office
Many workers were likely caught off-guard upon being sent home to work. Not everyone has an established space for a home office, nor all the necessary equipment to work efficiently. Internet connections that worked fine for home use may not have been fast enough or stable enough for productivity.
Going forward, companies will be required to invest in helping their employees set up suitable work environments at home. That might not rise to the level of literally adding on to a home, but certainly providing the right equipment and internet access will become a common practice.
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We’ve only scratched the surface here with all the likely changes to the office in the post-pandemic “new normal.” But certainly, things can be expected to be very different, and the days of offices stuffed with employees working closely together will likely never return.