Hybrid work: Prepping for the post-pandemic office

There’s no shortage of anxieties around Covid-19, and that’s not likely to change as we emerge into a post-Covid world. Some things will go back to some form of “normal,” and some won’t. One of the aspects of life most likely to be changed forever (or at least in a very long-term way) is how we approach work and the workplace.

Now that vaccination rates are rising across the U.S. and infection rates start to decline, most organizations have started thinking in earnest about what it would mean to bring back remote employees, what the workplace looks like with more public health rules and safety precautions than ever, and how their employees will interact in person.

Expect to implement a hybrid work model

As many offices went empty over the past year, companies struggled with paying rent and overhead on spaces that are going unused, while balancing the idea that there may be people back at desks in the near future. Realistically, most organizations won’t have all employees back in the office now that people have transitioned into working remotely.

Still, phasing out “the office” entirely just isn’t feasible for many companies. Surveys have shown that some workers need a fixed in-office routine, while others would like to have the option of coming in, if only on a part-time basis while working from home other times.

A hybrid model might require adjustments all around, with employees having to make a concrete choice about which method they prefer (assuming they have work that can be done remotely long term) and leadership making choices about what their facilities may look like. Some companies are downsizing their space because they’re unlikely to have a full return of their workforce. Some are moving individual offices to a more open plan and are looking to alternative layouts like “first come first serve” work spaces instead of desks designated for specific employees.

Rethink how personal interactions will work in a hybrid workspace

One of the biggest losses in a remote work world has been collaboration. Thanks to meeting software like Zoom and others, people are talking as much as they ever did—but the benefits of being in a room with your colleagues have been largely lost. Even if people will only be in the office on a limited basis, it’s important to think through how they will be interacting. Will your kitchen or break areas need to be laid out so that employees can gather in a safely distanced way? Are there modifications that can be made to conference rooms or meeting spaces to make them more open spaces with distanced seating? Will some rooms or areas just be off-limits for safety reasons?

Be mindful of the potential inequities of remote and hybrid work

One of the most challenging work issues that surfaced over the past year has been the variation of experience for people working remotely. Some employees (like service or customer-facing ones) don’t have the luxury of working remotely at all. Some people struggle with internet access or childcare issues. Any post-Covid office plan should include accommodations for workers that have those kinds of challenges. Companies going entirely remote, for example, might pay for rented local office or coworking space that employees can use.

Invest in high-quality communications systems

We’ve all had communication failures this year, whether it’s connections dipping in and out during meetings or tech platforms that get buggy and overwhelmed during the workday. Many organizations are just getting by with the services they have, but looking to the future is also a good time to re-evaluate whether your communications platforms and tools have been enough—and will continue to be so. That may mean prioritizing tech upgrades that may have been put off by Covid-era budget challenges.

Robust public safety measures will be the norm

Another major lesson of the past year is that public health guidelines can change fast, whether it’s on the federal, state, or local level. The post-Covid office should have a comprehensive base plan in place for in-person employees, whether that’s frequent testing, physical distancing guidelines, vaccine requirements (including any exemptions), and employee education. But any organization should also be flexible enough to change if there’s a change in infection rates or if government guidance shifts.

If the post-Covid office seems fairly similar to the office life we’ve developed over the past year, that’s because we already have a cautious template for the new normal. A mindful transition is going to be necessary in any case, with likely partial or hybrid measures in place that can be adapted or walked back if the world changes abruptly (again). Any office reopening should include a thoughtful evaluation of what’s been working this year, what hasn’t, and what employees think. Honest feedback and assessment are the most important factors in moving forward with our future hybrid work life.

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