We should be addressing the why of the return to work as much as the how

As we anticipate a return to relative normality post lockdown (whenever that may be), workplace strategy is a hot topic. In considering how we respond to new challenges let’s make sure we keep sight of the big picture. We need to address immediate issues whilst exploiting new opportunities to reinforce and expedite our established strategic direction. Choice and flexibility are central to the wider business reform agenda and should remain our touchstones.

Debate around the impact of sudden widespread remote working has sometimes been couched in terms of either/or; office versus home. This misses the point. Having broken down some of the barriers, we have a golden opportunity to extend choice for staff as part of a cohesive workplace strategy.

There has also been speculation around a return to a more traditional style office with individually allocated desks and even cubicles or private offices. This is seen by some as a natural response to an understandably heightened sensitivity to hygiene issues.

The need to re-create a sense of comfort and safety back in the office will be intense, but rather than succumb to emotive pressure for individually allocated workstations and the erection of barriers, we need to anchor into the reasons why the pre-Covid19 trend has been towards activity- based, flexible environments in which facilities are shared. In most cases it will make sense to continue on the same trajectory and put our efforts and ingenuity into determining how these environments can be made to be and feel safe.


Re-visiting the ‘Why?’

In developing workplace strategy it’s important we understand its place within the wider organisational response to the rapidly changing nature of work and an increasingly complex and unpredictable world.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]If there is one thing the current crisis has done it is to underscore the need for staff to be engaged, flexible, innovative, collaborative and confident decision makers rather than process-following automatons[/perfectpullquote]

Of course, the health of staff must be a priority but our strategy needs to address much more. If there is one thing the current crisis has done it is to underscore the need for staff to be engaged, flexible, innovative, collaborative and confident decision makers rather than process-following automatons.  A progressive, holistic workplace strategy should be front and centre of an organisations’ drive to unleash the potential of its employees, fully reflecting the cultural and philosophical shifts needed.

As ever we need to fully understand the context for different organisations and the detail will vary. For the majority though the workplace strategy required to support this wider reform will comprise a consistent package that cuts across functional silos. It will incorporate attractive, flexible, activity-based office environments, the option of at least some remote working, flexibility regarding how and when work is done, great technology support and the trust-based leadership and culture that need to wrap around it all.

Devised and implemented well, this package has the potential to happily align a wide spectrum of interests in addition to the physical and mental wellbeing and deeper fulfilment needs of employees. The financial perspective of owners, the service demands of customers and the environmental concerns of society as a whole can all be winners alongside staff concerns.

An informed and well designed, activity-based work environment encourages greater movement resulting in a sense of positive energy and an increase in exchanges likely to promote the sharing of ideas that lead to innovation. It will provide a rich variety of facilities to promote collaborative activities, both formal and informal, as well as good quality options for quiet, focussed work, confidential calls and staff relaxation.

Offering some degree of choice over when and where to work, including remote options, gives individuals greater control over how they balance the plethora of work and personal demands they face, reducing levels of stress. In turn this tangible demonstration of trust fosters increased responsibility, commitment and discretionary effort.

Individuals treated as respected adults are more likely to build the authenticity and self-assurance required for creativity, empathy and effective collaboration with others. It’s when fragile egos feel threatened that risk-aversion, self-interest and division abound.

Activity-based environments facilitate effective space-use, enabling reduced estate costs and energy consumption. Less frequent commuting further reduces negative environmental impact. Open, flexible spaces enhance ability to accommodate changing staff numbers and team structures.


So how do we make sure people are safe and feel safe?

There’s no doubt the issue of workplace hygiene will be very pressing and a sense of unease is likely to persist, even when actual (versus perceived) risk of harm has reduced to pre-Covid19 levels. The approach to tackling this will be many pronged and involve both high and low-tech measures but there is no need to veer off our strategic course.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The measures that prove to have most impact may well be those that put individuals in control[/perfectpullquote]

Some design factors such as automatic doors and sensor operated lighting that reduce the need to touch surfaces are already well established and will proliferate. Others such as the use of materials that resist bacteria and viruses will emerge.  These will sit alongside enhanced cleaning regimes and other facility management initiatives.

But again, the measures that prove to have most impact may well be those that put individuals in control; ensuring ready access to hand sanitiser, personal issue keyboards and mice as well as mobile devices and headphones, provision of materials to enable desks and other surfaces to be wiped down before use. In addition, developing the ability for individuals to choose when to work in the office and where to sit gives them control over distancing from others and facilitates effective spacing without management intervention.

The factors that have influenced the direction of workplace strategy in recent years remain as valid and acute as ever. As workplace professionals we need to be able to articulate them with conviction and lead the way in developing strategies that enable staff to give their best as well as keeping them safe. It is in this way that our organisations will also be fit to thrive in the roller-coaster, digital age.

Main image: Sedus