Dealing with Office Reopening

Impact Ideas | Leadership Development
November 11, 2021
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“if there is trust between an employer and her employees, companies can build a hybrid system that will be very productive”

As countries are beginning to ease their lockdown measures, it feels like the pandemic is starting to end, offices are starting to reopen. As we gradually begin to adjust to the “new normal”, businesses across the globe are figuring out how to organize work in the office going forward.

While many are enjoying the new experience of working from home, liberating them from long commutes and allowing them to balance their personal and professional life while still being productive, the issue of employees returning fully to the office is still uncertain. Some experts have predicted that remote work will continue on a broader scale than before. According to a 2021 survey by the Harvard Business Review, 57.2% of 10,000 Americans would comply and return to work if asked, while 36.4% would rather look for a work from home job, and 6.4% would quit outrightly even without another job. The statistics show that firms that do not offer some level of flexibility would risk losing more than 40% of their employees. In addition, according to a survey by PwC, one third (1/3) of current work from home employees would rather quit than return to the office full time. Many have discovered that they like working from home as it helps balance work and personal life.

Thus, companies are discussing what is acceptable for the future and are evaluating workplace policy and culture that will engage employees for better productivity. So many issues have been raised concerning office reopening during the pandemic. Some of which are:

  • Whether people are willing to return to the office.
  • What are the effects of the shift in work culture, especially for women?
  • What will happen to office spaces as employees work from home?
  • What are the efforts made by companies towards the mental well-being of employees for productivity?
  • And will the new working culture become a policy, law or standard practice?

There is never a ‘one size fits all solution’; the response may differ from company to company and from one geographical location to another. At the Rise and Lead Summit, our moderator, Mary-Ann Russon, discusses the issues identified above with our guest panellists, who are key Human Resources influencers in the businesses they represent. The panellists are:

  • Stefan Tonnon, Vice President of Human Resources EMEA at Insight
  • Joris Veger, People and Performance Director for Benelux, Kraft Heinz company
  • Marisa Daly, Regional Head of HR Africa, American Towers

Are employees willing to return to the office?

In agreement with the above statistics, all three panellists reveal that employees are looking forward to office reopening. For Marisa, the excitement of returning to the office varies from market to market, but for the most part, more people are looking forward to going back. She raises the issue of infrastructural challenges with working from home, such as the lack of fast and efficient internet access that many employees face. Thus, working from the office is something employees look forward to. She also agrees with Stefan, who stated that people are eager to meet each other again after talking to a screen for over 15 months. In her words, “even though we were able to maintain a high level of engagements, that physical chemistry that comes with connecting with people in the office is something to look forward to”.

On the other hand, Joris added that at Kraft Heinz, they conducted a poll where they found that a majority of the workforce are excited to return to the office and get away from the noise at home. However, he suggested that a hybrid approach is a key to the ‘new normal, where some days are for ‘office work’ and other days will be for ‘work at home. Stefan also collaborated with Joris’s point, saying, “the combination of home working and being in the office will probably be the way forward”.

The effects of the shift in work culture, especially for women 

Before the pandemic, there was this conservative knowledge, especially amongst HR professionals, that offices were critical to productivity. And so, if you were not at your desk during working hours, you were seen as unproductive and less hard-working. This type of culture affected women significantly, who are burdened with working and caring for the home. During the pandemic, McKinsey reported that an estimated 62% of employed Americans worked from home, solving this challenge faced by employees, especially females. Now, will companies go back to rigid working hours or adopt the new norm? Our panellists were proud to share with us that they have always had a flexible system in their companies, and so are confident that flexible working hours will become a popular method that companies will have to adapt eventually. Marisa commented that one key point to note is that the pandemic revealed that it is not only the women who need flexible working hours for time out to attend to family. Men also need flexibility to attend to their family needs. According to Joris, people have become intentional about life while working from home and in the office. Because of the large number of people looking forward to a hybrid working system, putting the genie back in the bottle by returning to the old working culture may have unintended consequences for organizations.

The future of office space

Another challenge for business owners is what to do with the office space as employees work from home. While CEOs of some big tech companies, like Twitter, have announced that employees can work from home permanently, thereby reducing fixed operating costs, other companies want to transform office space into a destination with a purpose. For Joris, rather than get rid of the office space, his organization office space has been re-configured to make it attractive for collaboration, connection and creativity. For example, there is a space where employees can interact and a place for meditation. Stefan also gave us a graphic image of his own office space, designed before the pandemic. He talked about the silent zones, copulation/collaboration zones, hot desks, so people don’t remain at one desk for years, and many more upcoming upgrades he thinks will happen as the needs of employees arise. This way, organizations will know that employees work for them, but they work for employees by giving them comfort.

Employees mental well-being for productivity 

While the pandemic elevated the importance of HR professionals within an organization, it also put the responsibility on them to ensure the mental well-being of their employees for productivity. Sarah Comstock, an HR professional, talked about how she sent employees tips for teaching their children at home, methods for coping with loneliness and guidelines for scheduling a virtual doctor’s appointment. As simple as this sounds, this helped employees feel important to their companies. Our panellists also had a range of initiatives that helped employees cope with the tragedy of the pandemic. According to Joris, every Wednesday at his company is ‘Wozny Wednesday’ for entertainment to lighten up the atmosphere – a cocktail workshop with teammates, an assistance program to help with additional needs of the employees like looking for a daycare for their kids while at work, morning meditation sessions, an app to share tips and tricks and engage in Yoga fitness classes. In addition to what Joris mentioned, Stefan has what is called ‘power hour’ at his company. ‘Power hour’ is a space where people learn and develop themselves. There are occasional motivational speeches by external speakers on mental wellness.

The importance of engaging employees cannot be overemphasized as it is pivotal to the growth of any organization. Stefan stressed the importance of active engagement from both employees and employers, which Marisa refers to as “hearts and minds”.

The future of work

We cannot deny the fact that the pandemic has introduced a ‘new normal. Seeing the statistics of people who prefer a hybrid system of working, companies need to re-evaluate their work policies and decide what an acceptable norm for the future of work is. Mary-Ann mentioned a recent move by the UK government to put into law the right for employees to request flexible working hours. She says this effort is due to the myth that employees who are not seen on their desks are unproductive. However, while this may be a good move, Stefan thinks it is not up to the government to build one policy for all. He stated that flexible working is already common in some organizations. Marisa collaborates with Stefan’s opinion – she is confident that such moves may have unintended consequences, especially in Africa. According to her, there is already a high level of unemployment in Africa, especially in South Africa, and so regulating the labour market in such a way may cause even more unemployment.

To sustain a productive business in an ever-competitive global economy, organizations will have to adapt to the changes that the pandemic has introduced by evaluating remote work policies and deciding what is acceptable for the future. As offices are gradually reopening, a hybrid working system seems to be the ‘future of work’. To watch the discussion with the panellists at the 2021 edition of the Rise and Lead Summit, click here. Please follow us on our YouTube channel to enjoy more discussions from the Rise and Lead 2021 Summit.

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