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Science, Technology
& Innovation

The Physical Office and Remote Work in a Post-COVID World

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The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we work. As lockdowns swept through the world, companies and employees were thrown into the deep end of remote working overnight. Workers found themselves having to adjust dramatically to home offices, crying children and a blurring of work-life lines. With the pandemic abating, yet another shift is taking place. As the call to return to offices increasingly becomes the norm, organisations and employees alike are recalibrating expectations of the traditional 9 to 5 workday. 

 

IS REMOTE WORKING HERE TO STAY? 

While we fumbled through the initial establishing of virtual meetings and their dos and don’ts, companies found that employees generally remained effective and productive while working remotely. In the wake of the pandemic, many organisations are now re-evaluating their offices for a downsize and refresh. 

For employees, remote working meant avoiding the drudgery of the daily commute, and the ability to better address personal commitments while working from home.

For employees, remote working meant avoiding the drudgery of the daily commute, and the ability to better address personal commitments while working from home. In return for this flexibility, the employees’ window of working hours was observed to have widened and overall working hours increased. 

 

 

Although more are returning to the workplace, the consensus is that remote or hybrid work arrangements will persist and be more widely adopted than at pre-pandemic levels. Nevertheless, organisations will continue to experiment and calibrate the extent of remote working that best suits their culture and operational needs. 

 

INEQUALITIES EXPOSED 

Looking back at the ‘great remote working experiment’, the benefits and limitations of working remotely have become clearer. 

 

Not all roles are created the same

Knowledge workers focused on information gathering and processing have greater opportunities to perform their roles remotely in an effective manner. These knowledge roles account for 20% to 30% of jobs in advanced economies and are concentrated among highly skilled and educated workers. 

 

Work requiring physical tasks, the use of fixed equipment or specialised machinery simply cannot be performed remotely. Many of these activities are predominant in lower-wage occupations that have greater exposure to larger disruptive trends of automation and digitalisation. Remote working offers no upside for these roles, and in fact, spotlights the socioeconomic disparity. 

Established teams performed better

Virtual meetings became the norm for team collaboration during the pandemic. Data on collaboration patterns showed that overall meeting hours increased during the pandemic, driven by the ease of organising virtual meetings. However, interactions have become more siloed, with more collaboration hours clocked intra-team and less so across teams. 

Established teams were better able to adapt to the switch to virtual collaboration, as they benefitted from familiarity with each other and well-practised processes. With offices closed, newer teams were deprived of ‘water-cooler’ moments and other informal interactions to build rapport and establish connections to perform as a team.

Remote working also posed an additional challenge to new hires during the pandemic. New hires missed out on onboarding activities and had fewer opportunities to be immersed in an organisation’s culture and network with fellow colleagues. New entrants to the workforce were also hard hit — remote working curtailed exposure to the softer skills in a professional setting, and the opportunity for face-to-face coaching. 

New entrants to the workforce were also hard hit — remote working curtailed exposure to the softer skills in a professional setting, and the opportunity for face-to-face coaching.

Personal circumstances impacted remote working ability 

During the pandemic, some executives vouched for increased productivity while working from home. This could well be the case if one had access to a home office or perhaps, the luxury to work from a vacation home. The more common scenario was the scramble to carve out makeshift areas for work and cobble together ergonomic furniture solutions — a colleague of mine had fashioned a ‘sit-stand’ desk from an ironing board. 

 

In Asia, the smaller average residential homes often meant a lack of dedicated work areas and spaces shared by a multi-generational family. Access to reliable internet connectivity and having the right electronic devices and hardware to support remote working, was often more accessible to those of a higher socioeconomic status. The internet fees and higher utility costs incurred while working from home could also be seen to act as a regressive tax.

What working from home means for women

In Asia, women often take on the nurturer and caretaker role in the home. Mothers who maintain a professional career are also often expected to bear dual burdens of childcare. This makes working from home more challenging for women and may set them back in their careers against their male colleagues. Photo: AsiaVision / iStock

Avoiding the worst of both worlds

To Dropbox, hybrid work creates two fundamentally different employee experiences to manage, giving rise to issues around equality and inclusion. That is why in October 2021 the company rolled out the ‘Virtual First’ model — remote work as the default and the norm, whereas the office for occasional in-person collaboration. Dropbox intends for all employees to have roughly the same mix of remote and in-person interactions, with the goal of merging the best of both worlds rather than split the company into two kinds of employees. Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images

The impact of remote working was mixed for individuals who were caregivers. For primary caregivers, working from home meant working two jobs in one space, making it difficult to separate work and life. This impacted productivity and increased the risk of burnout. Yet remote working provided more flexibility to juggle errands, accompany family members to appointments without taking time off or to simply fit in more quality time with loved ones. 

 

HOW CAN COMPANIES RESPOND? 

As we slowly but surely emerge from the pandemic, organisations navigating a best-fit remote working model have the opportunity to perform a culture refresh by supporting employee wellness and proactively addressing the inequalities caused by remote working. 

 

Persona-driven approach

Hybrid arrangements will increasingly become the norm. Nonetheless, companies should be prepared for a period of experimentation to discover an optimum level of remote working. It is risky to predict future office requirements based on current turn-up rates or even perception surveys, as this has been skewed by prolonged working from home arrangement during the pandemic. Organisations must first understand the current state of their workforce, and the drivers for employees coming to the office. 

 

Adopting a persona-based approach can be useful — employee personas are models that categorise complex similarities (or differences) into rich profiles that describe preferences of tasks performed in the office, desired frequency of return and other needs and expectations. This in turn informs the types of spaces and experiences the office can provide. 

Reinventing the workplace

By marrying the elements of activity-based workspace, technology and flexible workplace policies, Cisco Connected Workplace creates collaboration and network-enabled solutions using its suite of products and services to meet the evolving needs of a diverse and multi-generational workforce. Source: https://www.cycloneinteractive.com

A company that has been using employee personas long before the COVID-19 pandemic is Cisco. To guide the redesign of its workspaces, five employee personas were identified: 

 

  • Highly mobile: travels extensively to customers or partners — salespeople, account managers, systems engineers
  • Campus mobile: internally mobile and interacts cross-functionally — business development managers, executives, manufacturing, and logistics
  • Remote/distance collaborator: non-mobile — analysts, customer service and support, HR, legal, marketing, training, programme and product managers
  • Neighbourhood collaborator: mobile within group — engineers, finance staff, many managers
  • Workstation anchored: desk-bound, highly focused individual work — administrative staff, software and network engineers
  •  

Cisco launched its workplace redesign project in 2011 and more than 90% of its buildings have since been transformed. A variety of desk styles, interaction spaces and meeting rooms were created. For instance, sales teams had more huddle spaces while engineers had more standard desks. Teams that interact more closely with each other were also placed closer to one another. As a result, from 2012 to 2017, Cisco’s global real estate costs decreased by 26% despite a 7% increase in the workforce1

There is a natural ebb and flow to collaboration. Employees may come together to understand a brief, then break up in pairs or alone to process information and ideate.

Collaboration vs. Concentration

With increased remote working, there will be a greater emphasis on collaboration and connecting with colleagues when in the office. Organisations should provide spaces to support both process-driven and social collaboration. ‘Formal’ collaboration spaces could include meeting rooms, training facilities or even team suites that can be booked for in-office team days. These spaces should be tech-enabled to allow for an inclusive meeting experience for both in-person and remote participants. Video calls and messaging apps have worked well to facilitate virtual collaborations. However, they cannot replace the rich and serendipitous interactions that occur in a well-designed office. Social spaces should also be provided that create a sense of connection; for example, literal watercoolers (or coffee areas) that encourage employees from different departments to linger, nooks that support mentoring and networking sessions and arenas that showcase events and celebrations. 

 

There is a natural ebb and flow to collaboration. Employees may come together to understand a brief, then break up in pairs or alone to process information and ideate. Offices should thus continue to provide the option for focused work such as ergonomic desks and quiet areas. This is to allow employees opportunities for respite between meetings, to catch a quiet moment to recharge or clear emails and maintain productivity for the day. 

Biophilia offices

Biophilic design is capable of improving the well-being of those who use the space through reconnection with nature. In addition to the emotional qualities that vegetation can bring, it has the ability to filter noise, air, lighting and allow for a milder climate, which result in team productivity and more optimised services. Source: IHI Innovation Center [i-Base] / Nikken Sekkei

The ergonomics of working from home

A home office that is not optimised ergonomically can increase the likelihood of back pain and spinal health issues stemming from poor posture. The American Posture Institute notes that it can also lead to lower metabolic rate and respiratory dysfunction. Photo: martin-dm / iStock

Organisations also need to recognise that some employees may still opt to work from the office as a default due to the lack of conducive workspaces at home. Google had led the way early in the pandemic, by reimbursing employees up to USD 1,000 to pay for equipment to help them work from home. To further level the playing field, a remote working allowance could also cover other costs such as internet subscriptions or even co-working memberships.

 

New team norms

Engagement rates of the workforce have been observed to have fallen during the pandemic2, meriting a call to return to the office by companies. With employees prioritising flexibility in their workdays, companies should adopt an inclusive return-to-work strategy focusing on attracting rather than mandating workers’ return. 

 

In addition to having the right spaces, companies should equip employees with the awareness and mindset for hybrid working. For a start, companies should establish clear policies addressing whether or not employees are required to be in the office, and if there is a minimum or a maximum number of days for office presence. Companies should communicate the rationale for the policies, for example, role requirements, building cohesion or wellness considerations. 

 

Managers should work with their teams to establish agreements and norms for hybrid working arrangements. These can range from basic hybrid meeting etiquette (camera on/off, mute when not speaking, limiting side-bar discussions among in-person meeting attendees), or even designated in-office team days. 

 

A more comprehensive onboarding experience may be beneficial to ensure that new joiners have adequate opportunities to build meaningful networks despite less time in the office. Fresh graduates, in particular, should be encouraged to have regular check-ins with their team and would benefit to have buddies and mentors assigned.

 

CONCLUSION

The uptake of remote working during the pandemic has disrupted our view of the 9 to 5 office workday. While remote working has its benefits and limitations, the majority of employees want increased flexibility to manage when and where they work. In response, organisations should look to provide flexibility as an amenity to employees and evaluate how to enable employees to work effectively beyond the physical office.

 

The physical office as we know today, will continue to play a key role to bring employees together face-to-face. Taking a persona-driven approach can uncover the drivers for employees coming to the office – this will allow organisations to right-size and create the right mix of spaces to bring people together. As employees return to the office, needs will evolve, and companies will need to iterate on models that are the best fit. Rather than taking a wait-and-see approach, this review of the physical office is an opportunity for a culture refresh and for organisations to proactively address inclusiveness. 

CHIN PEIDI

Chin Peidi is a Director of Workplace Strategy and Change Management with Turner & Townsend, based in Jakarta. She has over 15 years of experience in real estate and brings an in-depth knowledge of Workplace Strategy and Change Management, adopting a people-centred approach to transform spaces, operational processes and behaviours to address evolving business needs. Originally trained in urban planning and economics, she has worked with both corporate and public sector clients within Asia-Pacific.

SEPTEMBER 2022 | ISSUE 10

Reorganising the Future of Work

  1. Cisco Connected Workplace: More Productivity and Satisfaction, Less Office Space and CO2, Dec 2018. 

  2. Insights from the State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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