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How is the new post-pandemic workplace working?

Office life permanently changed by pandemic? Looks likely, experts say
Photo credit: Adam Webb/iStock/Getty Images Plus

While the days of Plexiglas barriers, mask mandates, duct-tape arrows directing people around the office and social distancing are gone from most workplaces, the pandemic’s impact on the nature of work may be here to stay.

That is the consensus among human resources consultants and workplace management firms around the western world, who noted that almost a year of keeping workers out of the office – followed by two years of hybrid work arrangements mixing in-person and remote work – has created new employee expectations about their ability to work from anywhere.

Given the current skilled labour shortage, it also means that workers in B.C. and throughout North America have a lot of negotiation leverage when it comes to compensation and workplace arrangements.

“Hybrid work is here to stay,” said Kiljon Shukullari, HR advisory manager with consultancy Peninsula Canada. “At the same time, you are probably aware of the Great Resignation and the fight for talent for companies happening again, where not a lot of firms are retaining people as successfully as before. So perks like hybrid work will be something employees continue to have, and employers have to deal with that.”

Kate Lister, founding partner of Global Workplace Analytics and a leading workplace and workforce trends thought leader, said most of the workplaces she has seen and worked with in the last year have employee occupancy at 25 per cent, which is down drastically from the 50 per cent to 60 per cent in an average office.

“In other words, [they are] ghost towns,” said Lister, who has testified at a U.S. Senate committee about post-pandemic remote work. “I don’t think we will see an average of more than 50 per cent of people returning to the office. The numbers have stayed level since February, although there are exceptions by geography – such as Texas, which has much higher return-to-office numbers – and by industries like the legal sector.”

Shukullari agreed.

He noted that among Peninsula’s clientele, companies in retail and manufacturing have had higher percentages of employees returning to the workplace because remote work does not fit those industries. But for the most part, he said, hybrid models are becoming the norm.

Jason Santeford, managing director of workplace architecture, design and planning firm Gensler Vancouver, said the company’s clients have embraced this change for the most part. Many, Santeford said, are working with Gensler to redesign office spaces permanently to cater to a hybrid model, where workers split their week working remotely or at the office.

“Based on how well most adapted to hybrid and remote work during the pandemic, I think it’s unlikely that many larger offices will return to five days in the workplace. Many employers have embraced hybrid work with minimal mandates around returning to the office. Instead, focus is shifting to designing for a hybrid office.”

On the physical office design front, that means adding amenities that support employee well-being, including greenery and access to outdoor space and natural light, along with office space and seating configuration flexibility.

Santeford added that, instead of traditional workstations and desks, “third places for working” (sofas, café tables, bar tables and quiet rooms) are becoming more common.

“We’re seeing a shift of the role of workplace to a one with purpose and a destination – with experiences that people can’t get while working remotely,” Santeford said. “The workplace of the future is amenity rich, offering experiences not found at home.”

But Santeford and Shukullari both said the key is for employers to cater to the needs of their workforce, whether in physical office design or tailoring a comprehensive hybrid-work policy. 

For Shukullari, the key here is to have clear communications between managers and employees about all aspects of work. That includes when employees are expected to be in the office, productivity expectations and how those expectations are measured and how many days a week the company allocates to remote work.

“I will say the No. 1 thing that I tell employers in every conversation that we have – and we have a lot of them, because we are helping a lot of companies through the pandemic – is to be transparent with any expectations you have,” Shukullari said. “Set smart goals with regards to expectations. Allow for a bit more of work-life balance.... Yes, work is important, but people are living their lives, and we need to keep that in mind.”

However, companies have to maintain productivity, and Shukullari noted that managers must keep employees accountable on their job performance. 

But he added that monitoring and measuring productivity has also changed post-COVID.

“We noticed a lot of managers who were not ready for a shift like this. Managers are finding it hard to have frequent one-on-one meetings, and employees sometimes see it as micromanaging. Maybe we need managers to get more training in more frequent but less formal types of communication – just to make sure you are regularly keeping a pulse on an individual’s performance and expectations.”

Lister, however, challenged the view that remote work reduces productivity. She said hybrid and remote work arrangements have improved productivity in many instances because distractions at the office and daily commute times have been eliminated.

“It works better for some than others, and they pretty much know who they are,” Lister said. “They are the 22 per cent [in a recent GWA/Owl Labs poll] who say they want to be in the office full time. It may be because they don’t have effective space at home, are too distracted there or need the discipline of a structured workday. It also depends on the kind of work they are doing. 

“If most of their work is focus work, they will likely fare better at home. Certain personality types, like introverts, may also do better working at home. Employers should be sure to give remote and hybrid workers all the resources they need to do their best work regardless of where they are.”

She also noted that managers should track results and targets, rather than micromanaging productivity indexes that ignore the end goal.

“Tracking software is just virtual babysitting. If you are measuring people by whether or not they meet their goals, there’s no need for tracking. It’s demoralizing and highly stressful for employees who are being tracked. If we treat people like children, they will sooner or later act like them. Is that really what we want?  

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