In many ways, Dolly Parton’s 1980 hit “9 to 5” defined pre-pandemic work in the United States — from long daily commutes to crowded offices and the proverbial corporate ladder. Fast-forward 40 years to March 2020 and the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly, those 9-to-5 offices sat empty in cities across America as nonessential workers quarantined at home.
Since then, millions have adjusted to working from home, thanks in large part to videoconferencing tools like Zoom and Webex, which enable remote connections. But while the transition to home was nearly instant and widespread — at least among office workers — the post-pandemic phase will not look nearly as uniform.
In other words, the way we work after the pandemic will certainly be different from what we were used to before — and even during — the last 18 months. It will depend, at least in part, on how businesses chart their futures after collectively waking up to the possibility of working beyond the cubicle.
The remote work adaptation
The ability to work remotely has been a lifeline for many businesses throughout the pandemic.
According to Pew Research Center, only 7 percent of U.S. employees had the option to work remotely before the pandemic — and that was mostly limited to a handful of high-powered executives. While that figure varies by industry, it’s still as high as 70 percent now — and employers predict that two out of every five employees will still be working remotely at the end of 2021.
Overall, it seems workers like the option to perform their job duties from home. Another Pew study found that more than half of workers want to continue working from home after the pandemic. They cite a range of factors, from having more flexibility with timing during the day to childcare responsibilities and ongoing health concerns.
That’s in part why tech companies like Facebook and Twitter, along with retailer REI and e-commerce platform Shopify, announced staff can work remotely indefinitely. Other businesses can certainly embrace this tactic as well.
But remote work also comes with challenges for employees and employers alike. Pew also found that 65 percent of employees who are new to remote work feel less connected to their coworkers now than they did before the pandemic.
Not all employers are on board with the idea either, including investment banks Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and Barclays, as well as tech companies Cisco and Netflix. Experts cite the potential for lowered productivity among employees and the lack of opportunities for future collaboration as additional reasons the office environment is beneficial and should be preserved — Zoom or no Zoom.
As vaccinations continue and students return to school this fall, the number of employees working full-time from home is expected to drop. But by how much — and how exactly those workers will return to their post-pandemic workplaces — remains to be seen, beyond the handful of companies named above.
Up next: The hybrid working model
Barbara Larson, executive professor of management at Northeastern University, notes many employers and employees will likely meet somewhere in the middle and split the work week between home and the office.
This will help companies save on real estate expenses because they can downsize their offices. And employees will be able to move to more affordable communities outside urban centers if they’re commuting less frequently.
In turn, having a more cost-effective living space — not to mention more space overall — will likely yield happier employees. Offering more flexibility can also give businesses a competitive advantage when trying to lure talent, Larson says.
Steps to embrace the future of work
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for executing a hybrid working model. Nevertheless, as employees trickle back to the post-pandemic workplace and the new future of work becomes the status quo, businesses need to incorporate the following changes.
Anticipate worker needs — and craft clear policies
For starters, businesses should prepare for at least some employees to refuse to come back to the office at all and decide how they will respond. They should determine the post-pandemic policy that best works for the business, as well as employees, and clearly communicate this policy and related expectations to all staff.
Implement a transition period
Like any big change, returning to the office — not to mention commuting — will be an adjustment for employees used to rolling out of bed and onto video calls. That’s why it’s wise for employers to give staff plenty of warning if they expect them to return even part-time to their cubicles and to go easy on workers as they reacclimate themselves to the proverbial rat race.
Managers should also institute a transition period to settle back in and avoid micromanaging employees who have likely grown accustomed to more freedom since they last worked in an office.
Rethink the office
Many office buildings sat empty for more than a year, so it’s also a good time to ponder how much physical space a business should occupy — and what that space should look like.
If some employees continue to work remotely, you may be able to downsize. But you may also want to incorporate more in-office meeting space with screens and other features to enable collaboration among employees no matter where they are based.
Reassess the company culture
You know the saying “You can never go home again”? You may very well find the same is true of the office. The past year has been tough on all workers, and no matter how we go back to work, it won’t quite be the same. You may find the company culture your business had before the pandemic doesn’t quite fit anymore.
That’s why now is a good opportunity to think about how your business has changed — including, but not limited to, where staff works now — and how that may have impacted your company culture. Communicate this to employees and solicit their input as you embark upon this next phase.
Lean on experiences to bridge the gap between office and home
The return to work means at least the potential for more in-person interaction. After more than a year apart, carving out time for these experiences is essential. This includes new hires who may never have met their colleagues face to face.
There are many considerations to factor in — including safety concerns and where employees are based. But if your business adopts a hybrid working model, incorporate social experiences to help remote employees feel connected to their in-office coworkers and to help compensate for any missed opportunities at the water cooler.
Preparing the workplace
We know the offices we left behind in March 2020 won’t be the same whenever we return to them. We don’t know what exactly they’ll look like or even what work will be like.
As the pandemic continues, this additional uncertainty may cause even more undue stress on workers who are already nervous that returning to their cubicles will increase their likelihood of getting sick.
That’s why it’s so important for businesses to carefully map out their reopening plans to emphasize safety in the workplace. In doing so, remember that some if not all of these changes may become permanent — the “new normal,” if you will — so these changes aren’t just a temporary fix.
Before reopening, thoroughly examine your existing space and test any equipment that may have lain dormant to determine what you need to replace. Prioritize safety in the workplace above all else when charting your course for reopening. This will encourage your employees to come to the office.
The following steps — some of which are already familiar to you — are the most prominent post-pandemic workplace trends. While your business may have unique needs, consider these before returning to the office.
Settle on a mask policy
Masks have become a hot-button issue in the past year. As a business owner, you need a clear mask policy before welcoming employees back — for both vaccinated and unvaccinated employees.
Generally speaking, experts still recommend people wear masks in crowded, enclosed spaces like offices to further curb the spread of COVID-19. If you opt to mandate masks for employees, in-office signs can remind staff of the new policy and its benefits.
You can also implement policies on vaccine records and temperature checks as an additional safeguard at entrances.
Take your cleaning routine up a notch
Put adequate cleaning and disinfecting procedures in place to enhance workplace safety, especially for common areas both employees and visitors use, such as the lobby, kitchen, and bathroom, as well as fixtures like doorknobs and keyboards.
Clean more frequently than you did before the pandemic. Sanitize workspaces after use, and make disinfectants available to employees so they have control over the cleanliness of their desks. This should help them feel safer.
Of course, make sure your office can dispose of these additional cleaning products, which could mean bringing in more trash bags and garbage cans and scheduling more frequent pickups.
Find out if your ventilation system makes the grade
A potentially more costly office update is your ventilation system. This recommendation comes straight from the CDC, which advises businesses to figure out if their existing setups operate effectively. That means maximizing fresh air while minimizing recirculation. If your system doesn’t measure up, you’ll need to upgrade.
Ventilation systems help diminish the spread of COVID-19 through the air in enclosed spaces. Maximizing the fresh air circulating through an office helps dilute airborne viruses. Opening windows and running fans helps, too.
You may even move some meetings or social events outdoors to maximize access to fresh air. But, of course, there will have to be enough room to socially distance.
This ventilation system assessment means you may finally have to address any poorly ventilated areas in your office. In some cases, a Carbon Dioxide monitor can help identify these spaces.
Stagger employee schedules
One popular post-pandemic workplace trend to minimize crowds and the potential for transmission is to design a hybrid work schedule in which employees come to the office on different days — or to even stagger their hourly schedules when possible, like by having a morning team and an afternoon team.
This schedule makes it much easier to socially distance when back at work. But employers should also examine employee risk factors — including any for the people particular employees live with — when determining these schedules and making necessary accommodations.
Make sure you have the necessary collaboration tools
Because it’s unlikely all employees will return to the office five days a week en masse, it’s wise to upgrade your office with the necessary technology to facilitate remote collaboration.
You likely already have videoconferencing tools, but think about whether you can add anything to your conference rooms to optimize the experience for staff both in and out of the room. Also, research any tools that have emerged in the last year and a half that may help staff do their jobs better.
Purchase new furniture
Beyond reconsidering who is in the office at any given time, employers can also replace unwieldy furniture, such as mahogany desks, with more easily movable furniture. Lightweight furniture with wheels will make it easier to quickly reconfigure office setups based on daily needs.
While new furniture is admittedly an additional expense, the ability to move a desk and a seat six feet away from coworkers can also give peace of mind to employees who may be anxious about returning.
Moveable furniture is even more useful in an open-office concept. Fans of the layout are in luck as it’s likely here for the long run.
A different spin on the above tip is to set up communal workstations and meeting rooms that allow employees to choose where they work on any given day. While the idea of sharing a desk may sound risky at first, thorough cleaning procedures help mitigate this risk.
Plus, unassigned workstations help facilitate social distancing as no one is beholden to any specific desk — and, of course, its neighbors.
Communal meeting rooms were common in shared workspaces like WeWork before the pandemic. To imitate the shared space model, you can use an app to book space. If not, depending on the size of your staff, a first-come-first-served system may be best.
If new furniture or shared workspaces aren’t feasible for your business, put up transparent barriers like plexiglass to reduce physical contact between employees at their desks.
Reroute the office
Another way to help reduce internal contact is to reassess how employees move about in the office. Instead of a free-for-all, create specific routes, such as one hallway for entering and another for exiting.
If that isn’t possible, try asking employees to make a habit of walking on one specific side of the hall. This ensures employees walking in different directions will remain at least somewhat apart. No matter what tactic you choose, floor markings and/or wall signs will remind employees of the new procedure.
Smaller spaces like elevators are more of a challenge. Encourage staff to take the stairs instead. If you share an office building with other tenants, coordinate strategies with them to ensure you’re all on the same page and working with, rather than against, each other.
Don’t forget the kitchen
While a fully stocked kitchen may have been a pre-pandemic perk in many offices, you’ll have to eliminate food-sharing before employees return. The good news is you don’t have to forbid snacks. If you bring in individually packaged food and drinks to replace the communal coffee pot and water cooler, you can retain this office perk in a COVID-safe manner.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Finally, communicate the changes you’ve made to the office and your updated policies as early as possible. Giving staff time to process, adjust to, and prepare for alterations will increase your chances for collective success as you all adapt to new post-pandemic workplace trends.
Strategies for working with the unvaccinated
Since the first COVID-19 vaccine was distributed in the United States last year, nearly 170 million Americans have been vaccinated — just a little over half of the eligible population.
As of June 2021, 100 million Americans who could receive shots had opted not to. Two months later, state vaccination rates ranged from about 35 percent of the population in Alabama and Mississippi to a high of 68 percent in Vermont.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has issued a statement supporting the Department of Defense’s decision to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for U.S. service members. He also met with the CEOs of United Airlines and Kaiser Permanente to reportedly encourage business leaders to follow their lead and require employees to get vaccinated.
Nevertheless, Americans still have the freedom to decide whether or not to get vaccinated — which can prove enormously complicated for employers as their staff head back to work. If this describes your situation, you’ll need a road map to navigate the situation and accommodate the needs of both groups as best you can.
To start, survey employees on their vaccination status with vaccine attestation forms. It’s up to you whether to require proof, but it’s worth noting vaccination cards don’t contain any legally protected health information, so employers won’t run afoul of any laws if they ask to see them.
If it turns out all employees are vaccinated, you’re in luck — you don’t need to worry about unvaccinated employees.
However, as headlines continue to remind us, Americans remain divided on the COVID-19 vaccine, so it’s likely you’ll have a mix of both vaccinated and unvaccinated employees. If you land in that camp, record which employees fall into which category with vaccine refusal forms as another step to managing the situation.
Why do some employees choose not to get vaccinated?
Legally speaking, any American adult can refuse the COVID-19 vaccine based on the following reasons:
- A disability or medical condition
- A “sincere religious belief”
- The fact that the vaccine is being distributed via emergency use authorization, which the Food and Drug Administration uses during public health emergencies to distribute countermeasures like vaccines faster
(Note: As of August 23, 2021, the Pfizer vaccine was granted full FDA approval, but the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are still under emergency use authorization.)
For the first two situations, employers should ask for documentation of the condition or belief. Lawyers recommend talking to these employees to determine what accommodations they’d prefer — at least to start. If their needs and your desires align, the solution should be pretty straightforward.
Meanwhile, legal experts say it’s less clear how to respond if employees cite the third reason — emergency use authorization. The law dictates individuals have to be informed both of the right to refuse the vaccine, as well as the consequences of said refusal. How exactly the law defines these consequences remains to be seen, though it’s a good bet this refers more to health than job safety.
While employers aren’t legally responsible for accommodating employees who refuse the vaccine under this condition, legal experts note it could be risky not to, pointing to several lawsuits that have already been filed, including one from a first responder in New Mexico and another against the Los Angeles Unified School District in California.
In both cases, the employers told the plaintiffs the COVID-19 vaccine was mandatory, and they faced disciplinary action if they failed to comply. If you’re unsure how to proceed, it’s wise to keep an eye on these cases to see how they play out.
As the lawsuits demonstrate, the stakes are high for employers, which makes it important to find the right strategy for unvaccinated employees. While the best approach is unique to your industry and/or business, the following are the three most common.
Strategy 1: Remote work or temporary leave
If your employees have successfully worked remotely during the pandemic, the easiest solution may be to simply allow them to continue to work from home. You can apply this policy to staff regardless of vaccine status, or you can limit it to unvaccinated workers.
Another option is to put unvaccinated employees on temporary leave, but be wary of doing this. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows businesses to exclude employees who pose a genuine threat to the health and safety of the workplace or the general public.
But if employees were to file discrimination claims or retaliate because you kept them out of the office, you’ll have to prove those staff members did, in fact, pose a threat. That can be hard if employees were in the office at any point during the pandemic before vaccine distribution.
To further complicate matters, you also have to consider your vaccinated employees, who may feel uncomfortable around their unvaccinated peers. As in all relationships, communication is key, so be transparent with all employees throughout your policy-making process.
Strategy 2: Masks, tests, and separation
Another option is to bring employees back into the office while retaining precautions such as personal protective equipment and testing. You can also separate vaccinated and unvaccinated employees in the office — including on different floors — or schedule vaccinated and unvaccinated employees on different shifts to minimize interaction and risk.
Several employers, including biopharmaceutical company AbbVie and financial services firm Discover, have already implemented policies based on vaccination status. For example, vaccinated employees don’t have to wear masks or socially distance in the office while unvaccinated workers must do both — on top of getting weekly tests.
Other companies are requiring all employees to wear masks throughout the office but not at their workstations.
The ideal solution depends on the needs of both your business and your staff. However, lawyers note that unvaccinated employees aren’t a protected class of workers, so businesses can require them to test negative for COVID-19 before returning to work as well as submit a self-declaration form when necessary.
On the other hand, some legal experts advise treading carefully when it comes to separating vaccinated and unvaccinated employees — and perhaps avoiding it altogether — because it’s difficult to enforce the policy. It could also result in allegations of bias if an unvaccinated employee opted not to get vaccinated on religious grounds.
What’s more, given how politically charged the national conversation about vaccines has become, employers may also want to avoid possible resentment among staff forced to use different facilities or precautionary measures, which would lead to further problems at a time when emotions are already high.
Strategy 3: Vaccine mandates
Some employers that require more interaction with the general public than desk jobs, like United Airlines and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, are simply requiring employees to get vaccinated.
Others aren’t requiring employees to receive vaccines outright but are instead charging unvaccinated workers more for health insurance each month as a subtle encouragement. This reportedly costs around $20 to $50 per paycheck or as much as $1,200 per year.
At the end of the day, as one employment lawyer told the Chicago Tribune, businesses can go as far as firing employees who refuse vaccinations because they have a lot of leeway in establishing workplace rules — that is, of course, unless there are specific laws against those rules or a staff member can’t comply for a legally protected reason.
Ensuring a smooth transition
We’ve all had to make a lot of adjustments at work since the pandemic. For many office workers, that includes not only Zoom meetings but also Zoom happy hours. While we’ve managed to stay somewhat connected from afar, it hasn’t always been easy.
Now, another change looms — the return to the office. This, too, will be an adjustment for staffers who have grown accustomed to working from their couches in sweatpants. It may also be somewhat jarring to work around other people, whether it’s out of fear of contracting COVID-19 or because we’re a little rusty when it comes to social interactions.
No matter how you plot the office return, you’ll have to figure out ways to accommodate employees who run the gamut from thrilled to terrified. By planning early, you give yourself enough time to ensure the smoothest possible transition while accommodating how employees are feeling.
The following eight steps will help guide you along this unprecedented path back to the office.
1. Create a transition team
First, form an internal team to manage the return to the office — and its aftermath. Charge a group of trusted colleagues with preparing for this change given all of the moving parts involved, as well as the unknowns that will inevitably follow.
At a high level, their work should include an initial risk assessment, as well as close collaboration with your insurance provider and legal counsel to ensure the business is really ready to welcome employees back safely — and you’re not jeopardizing the future of your business by putting anyone in harm’s way.
The response team should also prepare for what’s to come in the months following your return to the office, such as what you’ll do if there’s another resurgence of the virus. It’s also a good idea to reassess all your emergency response plans at this time. As COVID-19 proved, you never know when an emergency will strike.
2. Update your employee handbook
Given the upheaval of the last year, the return to the office is an ideal time to update your employee handbook. Include a section on COVID-19 and its impact, focusing on how the office and your policies have changed since your staff was last onsite and what they can expect when they return.
Some topics to consider covering include
- How to safely enter and exit the building
- What office/cleaning supplies will and will not be provided
- How to safely bring back equipment from home
- How and where to schedule meetings and insights on scheduling
- Which updates are temporary vs permanent, if applicable
3. Let employees voice their concerns — and listen to them
Start to prepare staff for their eventual return by soliciting their feedback. Send out a post-pandemic workplace survey with return to office survey questions. Encourage managers to meet with their staff for more direct — and hopefully honest — input.
Employee responses can identify issues you may not previously have considered while reassuring them that their opinions matter. Among your post-pandemic workplace questions, ask what kind of workplace they want, so you can create an even better environment for everyone.
These post-pandemic workplace questions can help pinpoint the staff members most excited to return to the office — and who may be willing to come back to work right away — as well as those who need a little more reassurance.
Employees’ emotional and psychological well-being is just as important as their physical health, so you should genuinely listen to them and take steps to mitigate their concerns.
You can use this opportunity to find out which employees are vaccinated. Businesses that plan to adopt a hybrid model of working both from home and from the office should also find out employee preferences about locations and scheduling.
4. Communicate expectations clearly
Start small with the employees onsite by identifying a core group as the first that will return. Possible candidates include managers and the human resources and IT teams. From there, roll out a phased plan with other departments.
Where appropriate, factor in mass transit and public school schedules, as well as employee desires you learned from the post-pandemic workplace survey. Shoot for at least three phases about a month apart.
Think of the first phase of your return plan like a test run. Identify any problems during this phase, such as new process bottlenecks or missing supplies, and create solutions to deal with them before launching into the next phase. That may mean extending the deadlines of multiple future phases, but it’s a delay worth taking to ensure you do it right.
Once your COVID-19 team has created a timeline with its return to office guidelines, share them with your staff so they have as much time to prepare as possible. Detail how the return will roll out, including the phases, and summarize policy changes from the updated handbook.
Arming employees with as much information as possible is the best way to allay lingering fears about working from the office.
5. Prepare the office
One of the first questions you should ask is about furniture, including the layout of the office spaces. You may need to move furniture or perhaps purchase new desks and chairs employees can quickly move for social distancing.
Check to see if you need to replace or upgrade any tech equipment, as well as restock office and cleaning supplies. Finally, put up signs to remind staff about new policies, such as where to enter and exit and how many people should be in an elevator at any given time.
6. Ensure staff has the tools to do their jobs properly
Empower your IT team to transition your workforce back to the office. Give them the time and space to reconfigure the office or to help employees reassemble workstations with equipment that has been at home for 18 months. Make any necessary hardware upgrades.
While everyone is returning to the office, hackers are taking advantage of employees. Returning to the office is a good time for a cybersecurity refresher for your staff, including a lesson on how to identify phishing and malware. You may want to include this in your employee handbook update.
7. Reset your 2021 goals
As you settle back in, reevaluate and re-establish goals for individual employees and the company itself for the remainder of the year. Be sure to give employees a bit more leeway as they adjust to yet another dramatic change. That doesn’t mean giving staff free reign — it’s more along the lines of avoiding unpopular management strategies like micromanaging.
Once everyone is more familiar with working from the office again, set them up for success with reasonable targets through the end of the year. This will create a sense of community as everyone works together toward common goals, and help to boost morale.
8. Embrace company culture
One of the best parts of being in the office is camaraderie. To revive it, plan a safe, in-person event once everyone’s back. Try to plan something outdoors, where there’s plenty of fresh air and it’s easier to socially distance.
Your company culture has probably changed since March 2020, so this is a good time to record and celebrate those new values. Use your first in-person gathering to reinforce your new post-COVID company culture and to set the stage for the months and years to come as a cohesive in-person team.
Preparing the office for a hybrid model
These days, you can have a hybrid car that combines the best of gas and electric technology, a hybrid pet that marries the best of two breeds, and now even a hybrid work schedule that offers the best of two work settings.
But a hybrid work model can mean a few different things. First, it can include both staff who work full time from an office and full time remotely. “Hybrid” also includes staff who work from both the office and their homes a few days each week.
You can even combine the two with some staff permanently located in the office or at home while other team members work from both locations. The most appropriate setup may vary by team. Sales, for example, may be better suited for the office to conduct client meetings while IT can troubleshoot from anywhere.
The second option is an appealing post-pandemic model for many businesses because it retains the best parts of both the office and remote setups.
The pros and cons of remote work
In addition to allowing employees to continue to work safely during the pandemic, remote work offers many distinct advantages. For one, it minimizes commuting, which saves staff time each day. This can lead to higher productivity.
It also allows businesses to hire talent outside of limited geographic areas. In fact, by hiring staff in different countries, you can easily turn your business into a 24-hour-a-day global operation — or at least one staffed beyond 9-to-5 local time.
With fewer employees physically in an office each day, businesses save on expenses like electricity, paper goods, and snacks. What’s more, limited physical interaction can also help prevent the transmission of colds and the flu, potentially translating to fewer sick days.
Remote work isn’t perfect, however. As many of us experienced, telework can be lonely and leave employees feeling disconnected. Communication and collaboration are also more challenging when everyone can’t simply walk into a conference room and sit down face to face.
Plus, management may — consciously or not — give employees they see around the office more opportunities for advancement than their stay-at-home peers.
Yet many workers have realized the other extreme, that full-time work from an office was less than ideal as well. A survey from Harvard Business School found that 61 percent of professionals prefer to meet somewhere in the middle with a hybrid work schedule that divides the week between work and home.
If your employees fall into this camp, and you’re one of the many businesses planning to transition to a hybrid model, the following eight steps can help ensure a smooth transition.
1. Plan — then communicate
First, draw up a plan for how you expect to make the shift from remote to hybrid. One of the initial things to consider is scheduling: who will work remotely, who will work from the office, and when.
There are a few ways to splice it. You can, of course, let teams decide for themselves how to strike the right balance. In this case, make sure you know who is going to be in the office and when so you can make appropriate accommodations.
Figure out a timeline for the transition — it could happen all at once or be phased in over time. Keep in mind, however, that you may have to update the office itself and deal with other unforeseen challenges, so it’s probably wise to start with a small team as an initial test.
Give employees plenty of notice regarding your intentions, so they can start preparing themselves for the change and arrange their schedules accordingly.
2. Create a safe environment
COVID-19 has demonstrated just how important it is for employees to stay safe and healthy. That includes their mental health as well. Before switching to a hybrid model, ensure your office is ready to accommodate all staff, including those reluctant to leave their home offices.
Start with the floor plan, which you may have to change to enable social distancing, along with your cleaning and sanitizing policies, and work your way down the list of safety protocols. Make sure you upgrade your ventilation system as well to add another layer of protection for employees.
3. Rethink the purpose of the office
Offices used to be where people went to work. COVID-19, however, proved that many of us can work from anywhere. That’s why the transition back to the office — even if it’s just part-time — is a chance to reevaluate what exactly the office is for and why employees should still come in sometimes.
This may be part of a broader conversation about your company values, which have also likely changed since March 2020. Think about what you want staff to get out of the space, as well as what it can provide them. This could range from project collaboration to client meetings and team-building exercises.
Just make sure you maintain a clear sense of purpose so you can communicate to staff members why the hybrid model is ideal for everyone.
4. Facilitate collaboration
One of the main advantages of working in an office is increased opportunities for in-person collaboration. But, as we’ve learned throughout the pandemic, remote work makes it possible to work with teams spread out over great distances. If you plan to allow staff members to continue to work outside the office, even part time, make sure they have the tools to stay connected.
Your existing videoconferencing tools may already fit the bill. But other configurations are worth exploring, such as project management tools or even at-home setups.
Consider reimbursing staff to upgrade their home offices with ergonomic chairs and high-speed internet service to avoid connectivity issues. This will ensure everyone has the tools they need to be successful, no matter where they work.
5. Foster relationships
One way to build a virtual office community is to use communication tools like Slack. Besides chat streams for work matters, you can create relevant channels to allow staffers to discuss topics outside work. This will help staff stay connected even on the days they are prone to feel isolated.
Beyond that virtual community, it’s also important to foster relationships — especially for newer employees who may not have worked in the office full time or haven’t even met some of their colleagues in person. That means continuing to host team-building exercises, but with adaptations to accommodate both in-person and remote workers.
6. Adopt asynchronous communication
While we’ve gotten used to instant communication through email and text, you’ll likely have to reset expectations in the era of hybrid work. With staff potentially working in different time zones, you’ll need to practice asynchronous communication.
With this approach, workers know not to expect immediate responses to messages to allow staff to focus on getting actual work done. This style provides even more flexibility to staffers during the day as they don’t need to respond to emails right away. If, however, you’re concerned about lost productivity, you can request status updates by the end of the day, local time.
7. Streamline meetings
With staff spread through different locations at any given point, you’ll need to adjust how you conduct meetings.
Following the old “This meeting could have been an email,” joke, this adjustment may very well translate to fewer meetings overall — perhaps weekly instead of daily. Instead of multiple meetings, use project management tools to ensure everyone is on track to meet their goals.
When you do hold a meeting, try to give as much notice as possible to find a time convenient for most if not all time zones. Set agendas for these meetings to ensure they stay on track and no one leaves feeling like they wasted time.
8. Nurture opportunities for all
Because some teams and managers may have more in-person communication in a hybrid model, be wary of proximity bias — when managers favor those who are close to them. Proximity bias can happen unconsciously, meaning that remote employees are sometimes at a disadvantage when it comes to getting plum assignments or even promotions.
Managers can avoid proximity bias by bridging the gap between office and home. For example, if you grab lunch with your in-office team, schedule a virtual lunch hour with your remote staff after sending gift cards.
Also, be sure to share positive feedback about performance for all employees with higher-ups, so they, too, can see who is hitting it out of the park, no matter where they are batting from.
Technology in the hybrid workplace
While the pandemic has yielded some shared experiences like quarantining, Zooming, and online shopping, how exactly we return to our jobs could look different from one office to the next.
As we’ve outlined in previous chapters, a hybrid work model is likely for many businesses — professional services firm PwC’s remote work survey found 68 percent of executives expect staff to come to the office around three days a week.
But exactly what “hybrid” means to each office runs the gamut — from a mix of fully remote and fully in-office employees to staff that split the week between the two locations. And, of course, a mix of both.
This shift from full-time remote work to hybrid models will only be successful if businesses invest in the right technology to ensure offices are safe, employees can do their jobs, and staff thrives. That potentially means hiring a chief information officer (CIO) to manage the transition if you don’t have one already.
Having a key executive to oversee all deployments also helps ensure you’re not wasting any of your tech budget on overlapping tools. You should also consider conducting a technology audit to determine your baseline and zero in on existing gaps.
As you prepare to welcome back some employees at least some of the time, here’s a closer look at the technology you’ll need in this hybrid workplace — and how it enhances your business overall.
Let’s start with the office itself.
First, there’s an entirely new category of workplace technology, which encompasses safety and scheduling.
The former includes contactless office features like automatic turnstiles and doors, touch-free elevators, and touchless bathrooms. It also extends to contactless payments and paperless billing — basically anything that removes the potential for physical contact in any business-to-employee or business-to-customer experience.
You can even monitor the movement of employees and visitors in your office via their mobile devices to get a better sense of how they are using the space — and where high-traffic areas may require additional cleaning — as well as for contact tracing. (While this data is aggregated and anonymized, make sure to put adequate measures in place to protect privacy.)
Space management applications
Another relatively new category is space management. With a mix of employees at home and in the office — and some who may even sit at unassigned desks to ensure social distancing — a new challenge for office managers will be figuring out who sits where on any given day.
It’s also important for office managers or the CIO to communicate with employees about seating arrangements and distancing requirements as often as needed.
Space management tools can help ensure compliance by facilitating reservations for specific workspaces, setting limits on how many employees can be in certain areas, and allowing employees to find and book alternatives if their favorite spot is taken.
This technology is similar to the conference room booking apps you see in shared workspaces like WeWork.
While you’ve likely invested in videoconferencing tools and screens, you can get more bang for your buck by also using those displays as digital signs for information like room capacity or cleaning policies in between meetings. This helps hammer home how the office has changed since March 2020 and gives in-office employees more peace of mind.
This may sound like something out of The Jetsons, but it may finally be time for office managers to deploy robots and artificial intelligence to help with cleaning.
These technologies vary greatly, from commercial cleaning robots that operate like automated custodians to apps that notify staff when a desk or a meeting space is vacant, so it can be cleaned again. You can also look out for innovations like UV light technology to take disinfecting to a whole other level.
Next, let’s look at how new technology will help employees get work done.
Collaboration and communication tools
Reports show that striking the right balance with employee contact may be tricky in the hybrid work era. Too little can make staff feel disconnected while too much can tax employees already struggling to separate work and home. You can find the middle ground by developing a unique connection strategy, which should include both communication and collaboration tools.
In addition to communication platforms like Slack or Microsoft Teams, which help share information with one or many coworkers, crowdsourcing tools like digital surveys or online forms can help managers keep their fingers on the pulse of the office. These tools also give managers a sense of what’s working and what’s not, so they can make adjustments as necessary.
With online forms from Jotform, for example, businesses can collect COVID-related information or employee feedback with forms that can be shared as links or QR codes. Staff members fill out the forms on their devices — and managers view responses online or on a mobile device — minimizing human contact.
With teams potentially spread out across time zones, other collaboration-enhancing tools like cloud storage, file sharing, and project management trackers will continue to be vital to success in the hybrid work era.
The latter allows managers to see if deliverables are on target and employees to demonstrate they are productive outside of their cubicles. And, of course, if any projects require input from multiple employees, project management tools also store the most important documents along with a history of the project so far, making it easy for everyone to get up to speed.
To take collaboration a step further, consider investing in smart whiteboards, which are ideal for virtual brainstorming sessions. Or look into other immersive technology like virtual reality, where you can create virtual meeting halls for company-wide events.
On a related note, paper documents will become even more woefully outdated in the hybrid work era. Digital files and file-sharing tools were already on the rise, fueling and streamlining collaboration. In hybrid workplaces, digital files have the added benefit of reducing physical contact between coworkers.
Note that when you’re first figuring out how to go paperless, you may have to take a step back to addressing your physical paperwork first. Digitize older files to reduce clutter and ensure everyone has access to everything they need no matter where they are.
You surely have a videoconferencing strategy in place by now. But the hybrid work era may call for a tune-up. That’s because while video tools will continue to facilitate remote collaboration, hybrid work and remote work aren’t synonymous.
For example, some videoconferencing tools tout a feature called individual framing, which displays each meeting participant in their own window regardless of whether they’re at the office or at home. The idea is that these individual frames help even the playing field a bit and prevent remote workers from feeling like they’re missing out on a company-wide event.
Another bonus: By zeroing in on each participant rather than displaying a large room of potentially small faces, it’s easier to see everyone’s reactions. This not only pays dividends when reading the room about work projects in development but also helps cement relationships between coworkers.
You should also expect to see more screens in offices overall — a new norm that may require you to beef up your network infrastructure to ensure you have the bandwidth to power all of your new technology.
Peter Parker was onto something when he said that with great power comes great responsibility — and it applies to the office as well. When you’re integrating more technology into a hybrid workplace, you’d be remiss if you didn’t upgrade your security systems as well.
That means using a virtual private network (VPN) or even requiring zero-trust network access, so you can be sure only authorized personnel can access whatever is stored on your network. If your business deals with particularly sensitive data, you’ll probably want to lean toward the latter.
Additional tech-enabled security measures to consider include endpoint monitoring and machine learning to detect suspicious activity.
If you want to go all out, biometric identification like face or voice recognition are increasingly viable options. However, as we mentioned above, you should plan for the additional steps you’ll need to take to ensure employee privacy.
Reports note the new hybrid work era raises new ethical issues around employee privacy, so businesses will have to be wary when it comes to any employee monitoring technology.
Finally, let’s look at how technology helps people.
Technology tools for staff
Beyond communication and collaboration, managers and CIOs have to pay special attention to the ways technology can help them manage employee behavior in a hybrid workplace.
Applicant tracking and onboarding
One advantage of the hybrid work model is access to a wider pool of talent. That calls for an applicant tracking system that allows managers — who may be remote themselves — to stay on the same page regarding potential hires.
You’ll likely have to update your onboarding process for new hires in the hybrid work era to reflect the environmental change and its ramifications. Specific cloud-based onboarding tools can help share these policies, along with traditional information for new hires like policy education and training.
Some managers are wary of remote work because they fear employees won’t do their jobs if they’re not under the watchful eye of their superiors in an office setting.
Even if that’s not necessarily the case at your job, it’s still a good idea to integrate some kind of performance management solution to help facilitate better communication between employees and managers.
Like the collaboration tools we mentioned earlier, performance management tools allow you to set goals and plan for periodic check-ins to make sure everything stays on track. If anything isn’t on track, they make it easy to figure out how to get where you need to be.
You should always help employees grow and provide opportunities for advancement. In a hybrid workplace, this is especially important for remote employees who are more likely to be looked over for promotions because of proximity bias. Consider implementing a learning management system to help all employees find relevant courses and learn new skills.