When COVID-19 initially hit we, like most, were first and foremost concerned for the health of our family and friends. As clients began reaching out for support, HATCH wanted to provide guidance, but of course, like with all advice in the early days, our input wasn’t much more than just a best guess. With the triage phase behind us, we felt now was finally the time to share some of our thinking about this very strange time. We’ve consciously avoided the phrase “the new normal”, as there is nothing normal about a pandemic, and equally, we aren’t calling it “return to work”, because many people have been working very hard indeed, despite – or perhaps because of – offices being closed.
We’ve taken this time to do what we do best – research – and brought together our thoughts on what the transition period back into the office might look like. Tips on hygiene, air quality and the like aren’t really the sorts of things HATCH tend to focus on, but we would be remiss to not mention them. The elements that we believe are most important to explore, however, are the longer-term behavioural and cultural shifts brought on by this period. And so we’ll examine the pandemic’s impact on areas like mental health, organisational purpose and privacy, giving our perspective on what the future may hold, as well as some thoughts on how these unique challenges might be met.
What is the office for?
We ask this question of our clients whenever we engage in a new project. At its heart, the traditional office has been good for three primary reasons: safety, effectiveness and familiarity. Of course, what made effective work in the seventies was probably different than effective work in the noughties, but those three elements were still the basis for a good working environment. They remain the same today, but the lens through which we view them has again changed.
Safety: Now there is a genuine risk people take on when going to the office. This can obviously be minimised, but it should never be normalised. How do we make that risk minimal and worthwhile?
Effectiveness: With remote working so broadly implemented, the office’s purpose will have to change for maximum effectiveness. What activities can’t be done virtually? The office must serve those primarily. Largely, these activities will be collaborative and social.
Familiarity: The familiarity of an office is derived from the human interaction that occurs there, not the fixtures and furnishings. When people return, the office must facilitate those human interactions, sustaining the community and culture that live and grow there.
So recognising that people can work from home, and may prefer to work from home, how do we create a workplace that is safe enough and serves a high enough behavioural purpose to compel people to work from there? And how do we adjust our operating rhythms to this “new abnormal”, being ever mindful that most managers have never actually been trained to manage in this remote way. These are really the core questions, and ones we begin to answer here. But, of course, as our understanding of the virus and its impacts grow, so will our ability to paint a fuller picture.
What do we hope the future holds?
We are not futurists or crystal ball gazers, but we do have hopes for what the world will be like when the pandemic is just a memory. It is our hope that the world soon returns to a place where social distancing is a thing of the past, and we can come back together as vibrant work communities. We also hope that remote working is here to stay, with physical presenteesim relegated to the dust-bin of history. We are ever mindful, however, of the growing spectre of digital presenteesim. We hope this is seen for what it is – an Orwellian substitute for outdated management practices – but we are not particularly optimistic. We hope leaders are provided the training they need to manage remotely, and in turn learn to better support their teams’ mental health. And, lastly, we hope that businesses embrace this moment of existential disruption and harness it for the good of their people. We may never be presented with an opportunity like this again.