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The office has left the building. Is this the new work reality?

One-way corridors, red and blue coded workers or work from home forever.  The office of the future may have to support both working from home and less office density for health and safety reasons.  Is the workplace we know now a relic?  We look at some non-orthodox methods that have emerged since COVID-19.

1. The office you are going back to will look different

After months of lockdown, Australia’s white-collar workforce is ready to return to the office.  Unfortunately, the world has not beaten the virus.  A vaccine is still months if not years away.  Employers who want their teams back at their desks will have to make some revolutionary changes to accommodate social distancing.

The office you are returning to may look very different from the one you left.   Here are some thoughts:

The six-feet office

In the past, business real estate portfolio functioned on the principle of maximum people minimum space. Creative ways to share space like open plan offices, hot desking and coworking became popular.  The coronavirus pandemic has changed all that.

The challenge for businesses now is to create maximum social distancing using the space they have.  Where you may have a team of 10 in a pod, you now can have 2 to 3 people with 1.5 to 1.8 metres between them.

Millennials who joined the workforce in the ‘open plan’ era could find themselves boxed-in by office dividers when they return to work.

Staggered hours, 24/7 operations and flexitime

Office workers who have been working 9 to 5 for years could be facing staggered or odd hours as businesses sought new ways to manage office density.   Some organisations like ANZ Bank have already announced that staff hours will be staggered to manage numbers.

Post-COVID, the work environment could be one that is made up of multiple working models including staggered hours, 24/7 operations, flexitime and working from home.


Hot desk is dead.  So is co-working.

Post-COVID, hot desk will no longer exist.  The trend which became popular several years ago was designed to minimise real estate costs and to provide workplace design solutions that could mirror the different ways people work.   In a pandemic, hot desk is a hot bed for contagion.

Co-working is similarly threatened.  Popular in the gig economy, sharing an office concept appealed to the self-employed who wanted to connect to a larger community.  After the pandemic, people may be wary to put themselves at risk of contacting the virus by sharing an office space with strangers.


Employers are going be touchy about touchpoints

Cushman & Wakefield, one of Melbourne’s top commercial real estate companies, estimates that a typical office worker will touch close to 40 different touchpoints in a day.  This could spell the end for the office cookie jar.

Minimising office touchpoints is crucial post-coronavirus.  Some organisations have already started installing floor decals, WI-FI enabled heat detectors, voice-activated lifts and doors, touchless bathroom sinks and soap dispensers and UV light to disinfect surfaces.   The office you are returning to could look strangely sci-fi.


Thermal scanning, red and blue teams and one-way corridors

When you return to work, you could be looking at a safety list the length of your arm.   Digital bank, Xinja has 29 initiatives to keep staff safe.  Everything from thermal scanning to a quarantine room for sick staff.

ANZ, one of Australia’s largest employer, is introducing thermal scanning, lift and floor restrictions and stringent personal hygiene rules.

The United Nations Australia Chapter (GCNA) will introduce one-way corridors for all employees to minimise the risk of the coronavirus spread.  Office layouts will be adapted to include the 1.2m safe distancing.  All office meetings and events will continue to be online.


2. Work from home forever

Three months ago, paying your employees to stay home would have been unthinkable for many organisations.  But the world has participated in an unprecedented experiment and some employers are starting to consider its possibilities.

Facebook and Twitter are allowing their employees to work from home forever.  Australian tech giant Atlassian is following suit.  The company’s 4,500-strong staff have been told that they can work from home for the rest of 2020.   Organisations who have decided to allow staff back into offices are setting quotas on number of staff in the premises at any given time.  According to Camilla Cooke – co-founder of Xinja – only two teams will return to the office.  The remaining 50% of their workers will continue to work from home.

A volatile economy and rising real estate prices could also push cash-strapped employers to switch fully to work from home mode, particularly since they have tested it and know it can work.

Ironically, the portion of Australian workers most capable to work from home are the professional, white-collared workers who are earning good incomes.  According to a survey by Centre of Future Work, only 30% of Australian workers can work from home.  Those who can’t work from home include low-wage earners in hospitality, manufacturing, cleaning, construction and so forth.  With these groups, going to work and risking their health is the only option.


3. Office behaviours may change

Post-COVID, the biggest adjustments in the workplace are the changes people make.

Here are some things business experts are saying:

Productivity and multi-tasking will improve

One of the biggest positives from the coronavirus shutdown was the surprising level of productivity and multitasking in the workforce.  Australian workers have discovered that they are quite good at balancing children’s schooling, family life and organisational KPIs.


Work from home becomes mainstream

Organisations with difficulties balancing social distances in their offices may decide to give employees the choice to continue to work from home as long as they are able to keep them engaged and motivated.


Work from home health and safety issues will become a priority

Work from home presents a new set of challenges for employers including:

  • Physical risks from not having a proper workstation
  • Psychological risks such as isolation, loneliness, lack of social stimulation
  • Reduced support from managers and colleagues
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Online bullying
  • Family and domestic violence.


The 9-5 model may be on its way out

Staggered hours, flexitime, work-from-home and other innovative work models could replace traditional 9-5 work models post pandemic.


‘I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again…”

If Dr Fauci’s advice were to be taken it would mark a profound shift in business rituals. For thousands of years, a handshake was the standard greeting in business and global politics.  Now, it is considered a bioweapon.

The handshake is not the only casualty.  Other rituals like high-five, low-five, pat on the shoulder and hugs are also in danger of extinction.


Offices could become lonely pods

Strict social distancing rules prevent employers from bringing everyone back to the office.   Employers with densely populated workspaces will need to make significant changes to the layout of the office.

The office of the future could become an isolation pod where workers walk in single files, work alone in heavily fortified workstations, attend no meetings and share no communal lunch.  Returning to work could be an anti-climax.


Commuting to work will be different

Staggered hours post virus could mean a more pleasant trip into the city for workers.   More people will move to the country because of the ease of working from home according to Melbourne researcher Simon Kuestenmacher.


There will be less business travel

COVID-19 could spell the demise of business travel.  Companies may start cutting back on non-essential travel for their employees after the pandemic.


AI and Games will train workers

Training teams while social distancing is impossible. Companies may decide to use AI or games to train staff instead.


Management practices will have to change

If working from home continues, some traditional management practices may have to change.  For example, ‘managing by walking around’ or presenteeism approach (casting an eye to check on workers while they work) are not practical if half your staff is online.

Instead, organisations may have to consider multiple-prong approaches that can formalise flexible work arrangements and measure performance remotely.


Work-life balance is important

Employee work-life balance will drive productivity.  As working from home becomes mainstream, employers will have to put more emphasis in ensuring that staff can work productively from any location.

What will happen is hard to predict. The likely scenario is that we will eventually return to some hybrid work model that combines collective workplaces with remote working from home. The question is not what is trending or waning but how we can find the balance. Contact us to discuss how to keep your employees engaged at home and productivity high.