Defining success in the post pandemic new normal
As the world is preparing to shift from widespread remote working to a return to the office, it’s clear that the way we live and work has been transformed permanently over the past year. While the fully remote model certainly has significant advantages, such as keeping the workforce safe and maintaining a healthy work-life balance, it has also revealed serious limitations related to employee wellbeing and engagement. The question is what the perfect working environment looks like.
The rise of open space office environments
In the first two decades of this century, private offices were eliminated as outdated symbols of corporate hierarchy. Open plan office spaces became a trend that many companies embraced. The idea was to create an environment where people could innovate, stimulating creativity and collaboration. As Steve Jobs once said: “Ideas don’t happen in the boardroom, they happen in corridors”. Facilitating spontaneous micro-meetings and discussions is a feature of a productive workplace. Collaboration comes more naturally in a workplace where there are no barriers.
Studies today however show that if not done right, these open space environments have the opposite effect and result in reduced productivity, increased stress levels and lower employee morale. Employees feel they are always on display so feel the need to look busy. In order to cope with the limited boundaries and increased distractions, people need to become selectively deaf or wear noise canceling headphones to concentrate, and colleagues are reluctant to interrupt. Open spaces seem to trigger social withdrawal. When companies switched from cubicles to open offices, face-to-face interactions fell by 70%, while electronic interactions via email and instant messenger increased to compensate. (“The Impact of the ‘Open’ Workspace on Human Collaboration”, Royal Society, July 2018).
Introducing flexible working models
In recent years, many companies have been rethinking open plan office spaces to move away from a mere co-presence to a design allowing for a continuous movement between collaboration and individual work, augmented by digital technology. Working spaces are increasingly reflecting environments that are like those found at home, where people connect and spend time with others. The new open plan spaces encompass break out areas, kitchens, meeting spaces and working stations, all of which need to be connected seamlessly.
Even before the pandemic many companies had embraced a combination of the physical and virtual work environment, investing in disruptive technologies driven by automation, AI and data. These digitally enhanced flexible working models have made it possible to switch overnight to remote working which has been the norm since the first quarter of 2020. On the flipside, those companies not equipped with the digital capabilities, mindset and expertise, have struggled to implement a more flexible working model. We found that 68% of businesses have accelerated, launched or planned digital transformation initiatives in response to COVID-19 (Capgemini Research Institute, Fast-Forward to the future).
Creating the office of tomorrow
As companies are preparing for a post pandemic reality, the question is what the pandemic’s long term influence will be on our way of working. What lessons have we learned that can help build a healthy, productive and collaborative working environment?
From the experience we have gained this past year, we have learned that employees are more productive in an environment where they can focus without interruption, nevertheless are anxious about long-term sustained remote work. For example, surveys show that 56% of employees fear the pressure of being “always on”. At the same time, the lack of interpersonal connections results in feeling disconnected from the organization. (Capgemini Research Institute, Remote workforce survey September – October 2020). This impacts their engagement and eventually also their productivity.
When organizations consider their future working environment, it’s imperative to continue to allow and encourage people to meet, collaborate, innovate and socialize. The future organization is built on a hybrid model, striking a balance between remote working and office presence. The workspace architecture should be set up so teams can come together and capitalize on each other’s energy, rather than merely being co-present. This entails a focus on particular interactions between specific individuals and teams (events like internal workshops, hackathons, or project team drinks).
The perfect setup, based on a combination of physical and digital environments, depends largely on the needs of the company. The goal is to interact with the right intensity and create an energy that leads to creativity and innovation and that fosters and engaged workforce. It is hugely important that enterprises provide their people with the best digital training and collaboration tools and maintain an open dialog of feedback. Implementing real-time monitoring and people analytics, real-estate analytics, and remote workforce analytics can help achieve this goal.
Leadership encouraging autonomy, empathy and transparency
Leaders must determine which activities and collective behaviors are needed and when physical presence is required of their teams. For example, discussing a team reorganization is best done through a face-to-face meeting with the impacted persons, to allow interaction and to understand concerns. On the other hand, leaders must also create an environment where employees feel they have permission to socialize and interact, and they don’t feel pressured to ‘look busy’ in the office or to impress the boss. Returning to the office to do mainly individual work and meetings would be ignoring the valuable lessons that the pandemic has taught us.
Another point of attention for companies considering redefining their policies to allow working from anywhere and reducing the time spent in the office, is to ensure that the managers lead by example. They must consider the people not in the room who may be feeling left out. We need to be wary of a situation where a core senior leadership team is continuously present in a reduced office space, with many of the employees working remotely. This would lead us back to the ‘old-fashioned’ corporate hierarchy that will directly impact employee satisfaction and engagement.
Taking into consideration the valuable lessons learned over the past year, when creating their office of tomorrow, organizations will build on three principles: customized to capitalize on collective energy, augmented by technology, and managed to encourage connections. The way you interact is just as important as the technology you use to do it.
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