What the workplace might look like when we finally return

Do you miss cubicles? Most people don’t. I have a coworker who does. He’s a bit peculiar that way.

Not so long ago, the concept of what makes a productive workplace began to change. Beige office walls were replaced with glass and natural light. Cubicles were hauled out to make way for open floor plans. Suddenly you could see your coworkers. Communication stepped out in the open. Open door policies reigned, in part because there were fewer doors.

Then came the pandemic. Those of us who could work remote were sent home. Everything about work changed. Some good, some bad. We got used to working from home. While it’s not yet clear when we’ll go back, returning to the office has always been the plan for most companies.

Which begs the question: what will life be like when we return to the office? How will we encourage people to come back?

Here are a few ideas about what the future of work could look like – and how to make it your own.

Offer flexibility over when and where work happens

Working from home is one thing. Working from home while parenting, keeping the house in order, rescuing your living room curtains from the cat, homeschooling distracted teenagers, taking care of loved ones, and maintaining our sanity – that’s (slightly) more complex.

Being at home taught us to multitask like never before. For many, that meant reshuffling hours to juggle simultaneous responsibilities.

It hasn’t always been pretty, but it works. According to Boston Consulting Group, 60% of people want more flexibility when or where they work in the future.

Consider giving employees more control over when, where, and how they get their work done. That’s good for mental health and physical health. Added flexibility is what makes some people want to work from home in the first place. Why not bring more of it into the office?

What this could look like:

  • Offer more work from home days, potentially a set number per week or month
  • Stagger start times to avoid rush hour traffic
  • Set aside areas where employees can work privately or in a group, as needed
  • Make it a policy to not schedule meetings during a set block of time or on certain days of the week
  • Add cameras, phones, monitors, and other infrastructure that make communicating with remote employees easy and second nature

Build your workforce around a shared community

A study by Gensler finds that younger generations are less productive and less satisfied working from home. They’re feeling less connected, struggle with avoiding distractions, and find it difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

They’re also missing out on some of the experiences and serendipitous learning opportunities that happen in the office.

Employees who have been happily working from home and maintaining – or even improving – their productivity have leverage over whether or not they return to the office full-time. Encouraging them to come back to the office is going to take more than asking nicely. It’s up to employers to find reasons why they should.

What this looks like will vary greatly. But at the core is the idea of community where coworkers can bond naturally. Workplace planning can foster those connections and give employees motivation to come back together.

What this could look like:

  • Set up happy hours, team lunches, escape rooms, beach clean-ups, or volunteering at local animal shelters
  • Start a mentorship program that matches seasoned employees with younger ones; outline clear objectives and milestones to encourage continuity
  • Invest in healthy practices that make sense long-term, like temperature checks, touchless doors, and clear signage

Incorporate benefits of working from home into the office

Folding laundry between meetings. Cooking healthy lunches. No commutes. Spending more time with family. Money saved on childcare. These are just some of the perks that have many of us wanting to continue working from home, at least part-time.

I’m not advocating for sweatpants in the office, but there are a few quality-of-life perks that go a long way in convincing people to return to the office.

What this could look like:

  • Offer onsite or reimbursements for childcare
  • Give employees a small stipend to customize their workplace with a chair they pick out or a standing desk
  • Build an onsite gym or offer weekly team workouts with a fitness instructor
  • Provide laundry services or vouchers, catered lunches, or endless free coconut water

Reimagine work with input from your team

“I just want things to go back to normal.”

We’ve all heard the words; we’ve all said them. Yet we’ve also heard a lot about the “new future of work.” I hope this article has inspired some ideas and shown a vision for a workplace of tomorrow that’s possible, hopeful, and reasonable.

My opinions, your thoughts, the preferences of your team – they’re all subject to change as we get closer to returning to the office. There is not one rulebook that will work for all people, especially now.

Changing too much too fast will not work if your team isn’t bought in. What we do change should be focused on making peoples’ lives easier. Productivity, efficiency, and longer tenures will follow.

Don’t worry about what other organizations are doing. There’s been far too much of that going around. Be curious, by all means. But focus on what’s right for your team.

The best way to do this is to ask. Have coworkers share what they think makes sense. Start planning today; go slow, gather feedback, stay flexible. That’s how we create lasting change and build strong, happy, and healthy workforces in 2021.

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