Ever since the first office building opened in London in 1726, employees have had a love-hate relationship with the workplace. As much about camaraderie and collaboration as drudgery and distraction, the office plays an outsized role in many people’s lives. After all, most people spend more time at the office than anywhere else. But with tens of millions of workers worldwide on an extended hiatus from office life, with little visibility into when they will return and in what capacity, the office is having an identity crisis. If the office is no longer that “place you go to work every day,” then what is it and what will it become?
Like many aspects of life altered by the pandemic, the nature of how and where we work has shifted forever. Work is no longer a place, it’s what you do and how you do it. As organizations look to rebuild office life, everyone from C-level executives, to managers, HR professionals, and facilities managers will have hard choices to make. What will it take to make the office a place employees want to return to? What changes can be made now to alter office life in a positive way? The pandemic has been a brutal shock for companies, but it is also an opportunity to rethink the office and the nature of work itself.\
Set a new purpose for time spent in the office
Many companies have already made physical changes to their offices such as spacing desks farther apart, offering hot-desking to decrease density, and instituting new health and safety procedures, such as additional cleaning and contactless entry. Now, the harder work begins. Companies must make organizational and philosophical changes to how they utilize office space. Quite simply, in a world where remote work has proven to be effective, and is preferred by the majority of employees, the entire purpose of the office must shift from individual work to group work. And that doesn’t mean just turning the office into an in-person collaboration hub—one where teams can meet to brainstorm and exchange ideas—but also ensuring the space is connected to the outside world in a way that includes fully-remote workers.
Key to this is creating an experience that is the same for those in the room, as those who aren’t. Meeting equality means everyone has the tools they need to be included and empowered to participate.
Outfit employees with tools, not toys
With some employees remaining permanently remote-only, not everyone will be able to come in for in-person collaboration days. Yet there are ways to make work-from-home team members feel like they’re in the office. For team-wide meetings or important client and customer interactions, companies can equip conference rooms with advanced video conferencing systems, larger screens mounted at eye level, better sound systems, improved lighting, and other small fixes (think light paint colors, conference tables you can drill holes in to mount microphones, and light-blocking blinds). It might also make sense to create small sound-proof, fully equipped, and well-lit rooms employees can reserve for Zooms on days they’re in the office. On the homefront, remote workers will need better desktop setups including top-quality webcams, microphones, speakers, sound isolation, lighting, and/or headphones. (Gone are the days of expecting remote employees to work from their kitchen tables on old laptops.) These same desktop tools will be needed for select workstations in the office. The bottom line: most workers will be decoupled from the physical office, at least a few days a week, so companies should focus on making the less-frequent office experience more meaningful, while bringing the office to employees when they aren’t there.
Survey your employees before making changes
It is also important to understand that one size does not fit all when it comes to collaboration tools. Different employee “personas” require different tools to perform their tasks effectively in a hybrid environment. At my company, Poly, we surveyed over 5000 employees around the world to identify six main employee personas, each with a different working style. From the office communicator and the remote collaborator, to the road warrior and the flexible executive, each worker has unique needs when it comes to the hardware and software tools they need to do their jobs effectively, but also in the management and collaboration methods that bring out the best in them. Take the time to survey your own employees to find out what their personas are, and ask them what tools would help them do their best work. Supporting your employees’ workstyle preferences, and meeting them where they’re at after 18 months of extreme work-life challenges, is critical for retention, satisfaction, and overall business performance.
Paul Johnson is the chief information officer of Poly, the video and audio product company formerly known as Plantronics + Polycom.