What will work look like when we’re finally allowed back into the office?

With the news recently that the WHO has recorded the largest ever single day increase in coronavirus cases, we’re all solemnly reminded that the pandemic is, unfortunately, far from over. Yet as countries worldwide look to restart their economies and businesses and governments alike discuss the prospect of returning to office work, we have to ask: when will work go back to ‘normal?’ 

And should it? 

With progressive companies such as Twitter announcing that employees can now work from home forever, and leadership styles now entirely transforming as a result of the pandemic, many people believe that ‘normal’ is gone forever, and that we’ll have to craft a new version of normality for ourselves in the coming months and years. But given that many of the norms of corporate working life, for example 40-hour in-office weeks and hierarchical management structures, have been with us for decades (if not centuries), will a pandemic really be enough to break the mould and force us to do things differently?  

Are businesses really trying to get back to normal?

For so many of us, coronavirus has felt (and still feels) as if it’s been with us for an eternity, but in reality, it has been just six months since the WHO declared a pandemic. In that time though, the world has undergone a significant forced transformation, with businesses, profits and livelihoods hit hard. Suddenly, almost overnight, the majority of the world’s workforce were working from home and supply chains, opportunities and even leadership looked a lot different from what it did even the previous week. 

So how have businesses coped? One person who has seen first-hand how the pandemic has affected organisations is Alec Bashinsky, Partner at the Josh Bersin Academy and international HR thought leader. Alec believes that most organisations have been reactive, but the more successful ones have not: 

‘A lot of organisations are simply concentrating on fighting fires as they spring up. But the smart organisations are looking closely at their people and more importantly, their next steps.’ 

Alec believes that at the moment, leading organisations are, in fact, not trying to get things back to normal. They recognise the enormity of the change and see the great opportunity in starting to do things differently: 

‘You can’t simply “go back” after this, and expect to hold meetings and interviews in the same way as you did before. Even the office configuration, that can’t look the same.’ 

‘The best organisations are seeing all of this and thinking, how do I embrace all of this change for the better?’ 

What’s changed? 

With guidelines worldwide stating that we all now have to stay 1.5 metres apart, it’s clear that the office will now have to look different, and that shaking hands and Friday night drinks may be frowned upon. So will the ‘new’ normal of work be the same old, but with social distancing? Many hope not, with surveys revealing that Australians now want a ‘hybrid’ between in-office and remote work. But what do leaders want? 

Alec says that he’s seen a fundamental shift in how CEOs and executive teams think about remote work: 

‘Suddenly, executive teams have dropped the cynicism around people working from home. They’ve seen that employees can be productive at home, they’ve got the evidence that their organisation will continue to function.’ 

‘They may very well turn to their property manager and request to cut their office size.’ 

To support flexible work, there’s been a massive uptick in our use of digital communication tools, so much so that Zoom has seen it’s stock price spike more than 100% since January. The forced use of these tools has also helped leaders see how efficient they can be, and has also accelerated their adoption across the board.

The beginning of the end for bureaucracy? 

Beyond the now well-established changes in the way we work, there’s been another significant transformation that’s happened because of the pandemic, and that is: bureaucracy is now being questioned. 

For decades, academics such as Gary Hamel have argued that bureaucracy must die. As businesses grow, they say, an increasing number of processes and policies are put in place. Add to this the fact that organisations are structured hierarchically and power trickles down, and you have a recipe for inefficient businesses and terribly slow and often responsive decisions. 

But if there’s one thing that the coronavirus has challenged, it’s the fact that decisions need to be made slowly. This has upended a lot of businesses for the better, says Alec: 

‘Big companies usually just keep adding processes. Suddenly, you find yourself with 54 steps to get a credit card payment approved.’ 

‘But those processes simply weren’t possible due to the speed the pandemic hit. There’s one case I heard of where a company in Europe cut 5-6 levels of decision making when they had to act quickly and they realised the process wasn’t necessary.’ 

The speed with which the COVID crisis escalated and the rate at which things are still changing will force companies to fundamentally question their processes and the underlying bureaucracy that supports it, Alec believes: 

‘Companies are now realising that the key to succeeding in the current climate is to be able to adapt quickly, and the only way you can do this is to be more efficient.’ 

Giving people purpose

Bureaucracy aside, the coronavirus crisis has changed a lot when it comes to people, and not simply where we work. With nearly 1 million Australians now out of work, the workplace psychological contract has fundamentally changed. 

As a result, many of us are currently grateful to have a job, and may be approaching our work with greater drive and more of a desire to be productive and work hard. 

Yet this added drive may not be enough to secure the elusive high levels of employee engagement all employers seek. Alec believes that the pandemic may have ignited a shift in how employers think about employee engagement for the better: 

‘For me, employee engagement is about giving people a sense of purpose.’ 

‘Now we’ve been socially distanced for so long, I think employers are beginning to rethink how they do that. Say for example those that come to work to socialise. Now, they may not be able to do that so how do employers give people that same sense of purpose, connection and belonging without being in the office?’ 

‘It’s a great challenge to have and I think it’s high time employers asked themselves this.’ 

The role of HR going forward 

As many people are starting to realise, the pre-COVID ‘normal’ seems a thing of the past. But if we are to transition to our new normal, HR teams within organisations are going to need to help us do it. 

But it isn’t just any old HR team that will be able to help us. Businesses will increasingly need agile, future-focused HR executives who aren’t afraid to take risks. Specifically, Alec believes, organisations need a particular type of CHRO: 

‘The role of HR is now to reshape the organisation, redesign job roles, digitise and streamline.’ 

‘CEOs need to specifically look for CHROs that can reinvent culture, adapt quickly to change and drive business cases for technology transformation.’ 

At some point in the next few months, many of us will return to office work, in some way, shape or form. But what form that will take and what it will look like still very much hangs in the balance. And that’s a little bit scary, but a little bit exciting all the same. 

Are you looking forward to life back in your office? Do you think things will ever return to normal, and should they? Let us know in the comments. 

Career Money Life is currently offering free access to our platform for businesses affected by COVID-19. Our digital platform enables all of your employees to completely customise their benefits. Learn more here.

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