Reimagining the office in a post-pandemic world

  • DeakinCo.
  • 2 February 2021

The pandemic crammed years of tech-adoption into a few months, changing the way we work. With the shift towards a more remote workforce, CEOs are now presented with the unique opportunity to reimagine what role the office plays in their business moving forward. This is the time to let go of outdated assumptions and assess the true value of the office space.

Once, there was no other way to get a job done than to be physically present at your company’s office so that you could hand over a report or deliver information to your team. Some industries dictated that employees needed to be in the office to access job-critical software, tools or technology.

However, for knowledge workers the physical need to be in the office full-time was alleviated decades ago with the advent of the internet. The world wide web lay the foundation for online communication tools, cross-geographic collaboration, greater accessibility to software programs and with strengthening cyber security the risk of security breaches was reduced.

This begs the question - if so many employees no longer physically needed to be in an office, why had the uptake on remote or flexible work arrangements been relatively slow prior to the pandemic?

Well, there were the well-known, and in some cases very valid, arguments of potential loss of productivity due to increased distractions at home, challenges around fostering team connection and team building, reduced opportunities for those “water-cooler” moments of inspiration as well as the question of what impact a remote or hybrid workforce would have on workplace culture. For many organisations, the workplace itself was a major recruitment incentive.

However, one could argue that underlying all of the above were the assumptions that the transition would be too hard, take too long and require too many resources to mitigate the perceived challenges. Enabling more flexibility in the workforce would also require the relinquishing of some control, forming new levels of trust between managers and staff as well as new skillsets and competencies to operate in and manage a remote or hybrid team.

With the pandemic forcing organisations and individuals to fast-track years of tech adoption, and many doing so more successfully than they had imagined, suddenly what seemed unviable only a year ago, has now become the new way of working.

The pandemic has offered CEOs an opportunity to look at the office through a new lens, to reconsider the true value of this space and to let go of the elements that have arguably been long outdated. 

The true value of the office

The conversation around the post-pandemic office has stayed within the walls of three scenarios: a full return to office, a fully remote workforce or the hybrid model. However, DeakinCo. Executive Director and CEO Glenn Campbell suggests that the decision is more complex than this and requires a nuanced approach.

“Consider the analogy of inputs, outputs and outcomes. An employee completing a task is an input, the production of a report or training program is the output, while an outcome is the measurable impact on the business as a result of the output. Ultimately the first two don’t matter without the latter. We can look at our offices in the same way. If we look at what outcomes an office can truly help to facilitate and determine its role in our business from that perspective, we may discover a whole new approach.”

What this means is that leaders must look at the outcomes that are best supported by team members working together in a shared space and experiment with how best to integrate them into the work environment.

Let’s consider the following aspects of work-life.

Collaboration & innovation

There are many online tools that enable remote collaboration in innovative, exciting and unique ways. But what often can’t be replicated is the energy dynamic that occurs when people are physically together in the same room. Many agree that in person collaboration sparks more flow and creativity that leads to great ideas and solutions. This is a core outcome that an office space can help to facilitate. However, even within the space of collaboration there are nuances. Perhaps an initial brainstorming and planning session is best performed in person, while subsequent meetings may be held online.

Leaders should consider how much their business relies on collaboration and what the ideal frequency of in-person catch-ups is to keep that dynamic alive. 

Team building and socialising.  

By most accounts this is what people have truly missed while working from home. The opportunity to connect with their colleagues face to face, in both formal and informal settings, as well as the opportunity to celebrate wins and be celebrated. The small things like afternoon teas and afterwork drinks are a valued aspect of work life, while more formalised team building activities are critical to the success of an organisation. While there are many ways to engage in team building remotely, the impact and nuances of face-to-face human interaction cannot be replaced.

How can your office be used as a space to bring people together and actively create opportunities for connection?  

Learning & Development

Can learning and development programs be successfully delivered via online methods only? The answer is – it depends. It depends on the business objectives, on the learning needs of the individual and on the type of training being delivered. Research and practice suggests that the most effective learning and development programs are delivered via a blended approach which includes a mix of online modules, one-on-one coaching, team workshops and of course on-the-job application.

What is the right blend of in-person and online learning for your teams? Does the in-person learning need to happen in the office? How can the space be used for growth and development?

Accommodating changing lifestyles

Could the office become more than just a place to work and collaborate? The pandemic has seen a growing number of people move out of the inner cities into regional areas. While this trend had already been on the rise, the shift towards remote work coupled with a focus on health and wellness, meant that lifestyle preferences suddenly became a lot more important. Workers are likely to expect businesses to accommodate these decisions. Could we see floors of office towers being converted to overnight employee accommodation to better facilitate work-life balance for those who have moved outside of the big cities? Sleeping pods within businesses are rare but not unheard of, could this level of support become a core incentive moving forward?

“The office will become more important but for a narrower reason.” - Glenn Campbell - Executive Director and CEO, DeakinCo.

The takeaway here is that what may work for one organisation and team, may not work for another. Leaders will need to take a nuanced, employee-led approach. If the right balance of in-office vs remote work is achieved for the right reasons, organisations will be in a position to strengthen engagement, build stronger teams, deepen brand loyalty and increase productivity in immeasurable ways.

What is obvious is that the office is still going to have an important role to play. In fact, it may become even more critical but for reasons that were previously seen as a by-product of office culture rather than its core purpose.

Ask employees for their input

At DeakinCo. a survey went out to employees to seek their feedback on a variety of back-to-office factors including:

  • Their comfort level returning to the office
  • The factors contributing to any concerns. For example, taking public transport vs being in a crowded space.
  • Preferred working arrangements including days and start & finish times. 
  • The percentage of specific activities they believe are best performed remotely vs in the office. For example, client calls, brainstorming, socialising, troubleshooting etc. 

The core take-out was that team members prefer to undertake tasks requiring greater levels of concentration or thinking-time remotely, while collaborative activities are deemed to be more effective in person.

The DeakinCo. leadership team is currently assessing the feedback and considering how to integrate it into a new way of working while observing Covid-safe practices.

The business is also committed to supporting individual team member needs as much as possible. This will include introducing flexible start and end times and enabling team members who feel strongly about working from home full-time, to do so.

DeakinCo.’s Executive Director and CEO, Glenn Campbell, had the following to say.

“While in the interim there will be some logistical challenges to manage such as car parking and managing lift numbers, our planning shouldn’t stop there. 

The key is thinking outside of the box, being focussed on what your current and future employees will expect and letting go of long-held assumptions about the way things should be.

The 9 to 5 office-centric workplace structure was built around an industrial need for automating processes and a belief that employees needed to be seen to be working. It was an input-output driven model. The pandemic has shown that when team members are given trust, understanding and autonomy, they will rise to the occasion”

The pandemic has shifted the landscape in ways that will continue to impact work and office culture. Many employees have recognised that not only can remote work be more productive and friendlier on the hip pocket, but it also enables more work-life balance. Many have followed the trend out of inner cities to more regional areas, benefiting from fewer hours in transit and spending more time living. Moving forward the demand for flexible work arrangements will likely increase.

However, people also desire human connection, a sense of belonging and value the energy that in-person gatherings can bring. These are the aspects that often get lost through a screen but are essential to happy and successful teams.

It will be up to each CEO and People Leader to boldly reimagine the purpose of their office with a nuanced and human-centred approach. This is not the end of the office, its simply the beginning of a new way of relating to it.