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The post-pandemic office dilemma: Who returns and who works from home?

Organizations must decide what happens to the pre-pandemic perks—the gyms, game rooms, and other amenities that defined daily office culture.

The post-pandemic office dilemma: Who returns and who works from home?
[Photo: SeventyFour/IStock]
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In 2020, organizations quickly pivoted to remote work—regardless of their previous capabilities and setups. For some industries, this was an easy and seamless shift. For many others, it was unfamiliar—and at times, a major struggle. 

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As we look back on nearly a year of work-from-home data, the results have been overwhelmingly positive—with most remote employees proving to be more productive, while also enjoying the flexibility that can come from a remote setup. This has some organizations leaning toward more permanent remote work in 2021 and beyond. However, some industries are still struggling mightily, and are eager to get back to an in-office model to improve culture, collaboration, and their ability to do business with customers. Regardless of industry or role, working from home has at times created its own set of challenges for individuals as well, such as burnout, over-working, and added distractions—particularly for those in households with kids attending school online.

As we enter 2021, COVID-19 vaccine distribution is underway, and more people will continue to be vaccinated throughout the first half of the year. That means companies will soon be faced with the difficult dilemma of if, when, and how they should return to in-office work. Here are three main components that will be impacted: 

REMOTE WORK TECHNOLOGY

Companies have made significant investments in capabilities and infrastructure to enable effective remote working environments for their employees. That includes equipment for their home offices, and the access and controls to ensure they can complete tasks from outside the office. Some companies never made the needed investment to start with to set up their employees with the basics of a home office or home technology, so with the trends of continued remote work and need for flexible working, it is still necessary to support employees with the basics. Companies also run the risk of becoming laggards if they aren’t keeping up with the latest work-from-home technology—a concern that could impact their recruiting and retention efforts. Another issue that will need to be addressed is productivity. Organizations must find ways to stay at the forefront of technology that enables their employees both in and out of the office, to ensure prospective and current employees that the capabilities to work remotely are still in place beyond the pandemic.  

ON-CAMPUS CULTURE

On the flip side, many organizations made enormous investments prior to the pandemic to create a “campus culture” for their on-site employees. These included gyms, game rooms, and other amenities and perks for in-office employees to enjoy before, during, and after work. Those investments in a positive in-office experience have been underutilized for the past year, and organizations may be eager to return and re-instill that sense of culture and community. These amenities and perks are often major incentives for companies to land top talent, but will they now go to waste if staff continue to work remotely? Is there opportunity to reimagine the perks and amenities in a more flexible way that mixes in person and remote experiences? Without in-person gatherings, there could also be negative consequences on employee morale, company pride, and an overall sense of purpose, belonging, and connection to the organization. 

FLEXIBILITY VS. COLLABORATION

Companies that are successful in their workplace choices in 2021 will need to optimize the balance between collaboration and flexibility. One way that organizations are exploring this is by determining the right, timely moments to use their office spaces. In this hybrid model, employees come into offices when it makes sense, but have the flexibility to work remotely otherwise. Identifying the opportunities to work onsite will likely depend on the organization, type of work and team itself, but the overall goal will be to use these moments to foster collaboration and creativity. There will also be considerations around travel for business meetings in other locations, and schedules will need to be effectively coordinated to make that possible in a hybrid-working world.

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As difficult as 2020 was, the workplace decision at the time was clear—employees needed to stay as separated as possible for safety reasons, making remote work the only logical choice. But as vaccines continue to become more widespread and it gets safer to be around other people, companies will need to customize their own working model to fit their employees’ needs and preferences, while also ensuring it promotes an optimal environment for their business to operate. 


Sarah Pope is head of future of technology for Capgemini Invent.