Productivity and Process Improvement

The office of the future: What leaders must consider as they design post-pandemic workplaces

June 11, 2020 11:15 pm

Workplaces will look and feel different coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, and leaders should prepare their teams for the changes by asking the right questions and being willing to discard previous assumptions.

As states and communities “reopen,” talk turns to how workspaces will evolve. Leaders who guided their teams in moving from traditional offices to work-from-home arrangements amid the COVID-19 pandemic are faced with designing the next phase: the office of the future.

It won’t be like the office of the past. That’s clear from the new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Workplaces will be sanitized, and people will be separated. They will be screened for signs of illness and sent home if there’s any doubt. Shifts may be staggered. Common spaces won’t be as common.

Making everything work will take true leadership. The way you convey your message to your team will be paramount. Do you sound as though you’re speaking out of caution about being sued? Or do you sound like you care about the well-being of your team?

Take a page from Fred Ryan, the publisher of The Washington Post, who sent an update to his employees in mid-May:

“We are all anxious to get back to the collegial environment of The Post and enjoy the chance to interact in person with our colleagues. However, in making this decision, the safety of our employees will be the determining factor. … I’ve asked that we use a “portal to portal” standard to examine all risks that Post employees might face from the moment they leave their home until they return at the end of their workday.”

What struck me was his use of the term “portal to portal.” That kind of language makes clear that the company’s concerns don’t start and end at the building entrance. The leaders care about the whole person and the complete work experience.

Questions to ponder when formulating new protocols

As you think about how to create the safest possible work environment, think too about what you want to preserve from the past and what you’ve learned more recently about working remotely. Consider:

  • How did we ensure collaboration when we were fragmented and separated? What will we do if some of us are in the office and others work from home? How will we ensure that the office team doesn’t dominate decisions or get more feedback and attention because they’re at the “mother ship”?
  • Who on our team notably found ways to connect efficiently and collegially while working remotely, and what can they teach us moving forward?
  • What have we learned about our workflow? Did disruption lead to improvements, or did it cause more work — and for whom? How can we build on that knowledge?
  • If our organization’s culture requires multiple people to sign off on decisions, has that helped or hindered workflows? What can we streamline?
  • Has working from home caused certain people, especially managers, to feel they must be always on,  i.e., tethered to technology? If that’s led to anxiety and burnout, how can we fix it for those who remain remote (and those who lead remote teams from any location)?
  • What insights have we gained about our colleagues’ families and home lives? What part of the human touch should we maintain, even in a no-touch environment?
  • What have we learned about the impact of flexibility in hours and schedules, and how can we be even more creative in that regard with a distributed workforce?
  • Should we be concerned that some of our employees will leave the organization if we require them to return to the office? Will we lose valuable people and institutional memory?
  • If the economy drives cutbacks, how will we deal with the ensuing emotions — anger, grief and survivor’s guilt, for example — wherever people are working?

All of these questions require strong leadership. You must determine the answers, then face the answers.

4 ways to rethink processes

In the past, you may have resisted flexible scheduling and remote work because you assumed they would lead to lax habits and low productivity. You may have kept your distance from staff, thinking you must always be seen as a boss, not a buddy. You may have been reluctant to establish strict rules about behavior because you just expected people to do the right thing.

Now, each of those assumptions faces a challenge.

1. You must design the new workplace with rigid rules about safety (hand washing, social distancing, individually assigned equipment, limits on meeting size).

2. You must make certain everyone knows those rules and is comfortable calling out lapses, even if that means speaking truth to power, which is never easy.

3. You must adopt a flexible approach to what gets done where, how and by whom.

4. You must bring empathy to all these decisions at the same time you’re acting as a steward of the organization’s fiscal integrity. That’s a real balancing act.

This is a time when leading by example is paramount. People will be watching you. While you’re establishing rules and designing space, to whom are you listening? Are people on the front lines involved? Are you wearing the same personal protective equipment you’ve asked others to wear? Are you talking repeatedly, even relentlessly, about your concern for the health and safety of your team?

When I teach change management, I like to show a slide that states:

“Change is good. You go first.”

As your team moves into the office of the future, you need to be that first mover.


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