The workplace post-COVID-19: devising a successful return to work strategy

5 months ago Stuart Bonner

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​With the UK government recently announcing the first steps of its return-to-work strategy, many organisations are now thinking about returning to the office environment – but just what will that environment look like? Investigo held a roundtable discussion on Wednesday 13th May to discuss the medium and long term futures of the workplace and working practices. Hosted by Stuart Bonner, Senior Director at Investigo, the webinar brought together a panel of leading professionals from finance, consultancy, property, IT and people and culture, a unique setup covering a business’s key back office functions.

A view from consultancy – Marc Roberts, Partner, Grant Thornton

“We were all bored of Brexit but now we probably miss it!” said Marc Roberts. To capture how COVID-19 will change cultures, attitudes and generate new ways of working, Grant Thornton recently ran an extensive survey of over 7000 people. Respondents overwhelmingly don’t want to work five days a week in an office. There’s now a realisation that “working remotely does work,” said Marc. “People can be efficient. The technology’s stable. Now we all believe in the technology, we can collectively invest in it.” The study concluded that by 2023, organisations will have the opportunity to reduce their real estate footprint by 40% through workplace rotation.

Only 10% of respondents do not feel better working at home from a mental and physical wellbeing perspective. They don’t enjoy the two-hour average daily commute, instead preferring to spend more time with their families and having the chance to enjoy breakfast with them, for example.

From a practical point of view, there’s no reason why many of them can’t continue to work remotely: 83% find it as easy to work from home as they do to work in the office. Due to the convenience of the laptop, 38% have kept to their normal working hours while 26% have worked longer hours. Giving the analogy of Microsoft’s “office in the box” concept, Marc stressed the importance of finding out what our people need in order to work from home, so we can provide them with the necessary tools and support.

Marc feels the government might ease the return to work as pressure increases on companies to manage the two-metre rule. Workplace rotation will come to the forefront of what could be a new normal, with different teams coming in on different days, booking out desk space and reserving technology in the way they book a train ticket. More sensible and efficient use of space will deliver much-needed cost savings.

Grant Thornton sees the return to work in three phases: HR – the behavioural changes we need to encourage; technology – the software we need to further invest in; and property – identifying the right places to reduce space.

“The phases of coming out of COVID-19 will be led by people,” said Marc. “Those three teams need to work in absolute lockstep to make things efficient.”

A view from finance – Bhavesh Mistry, Deputy CFO, Tesco

“The focus is on safety first,” said Bhavesh Mistry. It’s a necessarily unequivocal approach to an unprecedented crisis, even if the supermarkets have been left in the contradictory position of bringing in more frontline staff while telling their head office staff to stay away. Mirroring the government’s announcement, Tesco is gradually easing its people back in, starting with 10% by the end of May.

At the same time, however, “there’s no obligation or pressure to come back. It’s only if they feel they need to, if they need to use the technology, have a meeting etc. They’ll be encouraged to use common sense and stay home.” Tesco has a detailed plan in place for when its people do start to return to the office. This includes: the introduction of a one-way system with clear markings on where and how people should walk; doing away with meeting rooms; and ensuring physical space between individuals.

Tesco already had Microsoft Teams and adapted quickly to virtual working, but without losing that sense of being a team. “We feel more personally connected with each other,” said Bhavesh. “I’m amazed by the creativity to maintain a sense of community – a Monday fitness challenge, a Ted Talks on Wednesday, a Thursday quiz. In a bizarre way, being away from each other has brought us closer together.”

In light of Grant Thornton’s findings that the amount of office space being utilised will reduce by 40% by 2023, will Tesco look to reduce or maintain its property portfolio?

“We will look at it. We’ve been encouraged by the extent to which you can work remotely and how effective it’s been. But there’s still value in bringing people together and collaborating.”

A view from property – Ben Almond, SVP Global Property, Pearson Plc

“We’ve learnt that we can work from home,” said Ben Almond, a fact that has been confirmed in Pearson’s weekly pulse survey of its global workforce, which received 4,500 responses in its first week. The main takeaway is that there’s a big desire to be back in the office. Despite some concerns about the safety aspects involved, particularly for those who use public transport in major city centres and emerging markets, only 6% say they don’t miss the office. Of the 94% who do miss it, 70% crave human interaction and 20% mentioned issues with physical equipment, like their chair, or less effective and reliable technology than in the office. Surprisingly, less than 1% want to get back to the office for a quieter, dedicated place to work.

It's up to companies to enable their people to work better remotely. Pearson is looking at the return to work in three stages:

React – This phase is primarily about liability management on things such as insurance, vacant property management, rent, rates, risk of tenant defaults and dealing with practical issues like the courts being shut or contracts needing physical signatures and witnesses.

Reengage – Our next phase, when governments and states say it’s okay, is to determine who should go back to work. Does their work need to be face-to-face? And how do we ensure safe access to our offices?

Reimagine – The third phase is to discuss and agree what the new normal means for each of us. For example, if more of a company’s people are not in a physical office, how will this affect its working culture? How much office space is needed, in which locations and how should it be designed?

Ben has spent a lot of time researching and considering the office of the future. In envisaging their return to work, companies will need to think about the purpose of the office, especially taking into account what we are now learning about our ability also to work remotely. For example, we’re now collaborating more than we did before, but we still miss human interaction. How, therefore, should we design the office to provide our people with the productive working environments they need?

“We’re putting people first,” said Ben. “Their physical safety and welfare is at the heart of our thinking. There’s still a need for physical collaboration and social interaction spaces. We will also fully consider how best to utilise workplace technology. One topic, for example, is whether we will keep hot-desking. And this is an area where integrating workplace technology can help to identify desks that can be safely used.”

What we’re dealing with now is very different to what’s gone before, which makes change management even more challenging. “People tend to have an iterative view of real estate change based on their current way of working,” said Ben. “Ford was not asked to make cars, it was asked to make faster horses and when I was a kid, I thought I would get to Australia in a rocket one day because nobody had invented the internet.” Accordingly, all corporate occupiers need to consider turning the approach to office space on its head. For example, Pearson is considering using workplace technology to manage meeting room utilisation in a proactive way. Rather than booking a room, people will book a meeting and the system will allocate a room that meets their requirements, thus preventing employees from booking a room that’s larger than necessary or hasn’t been cleaned.

“We need to enable the space to provide a flexible environment where everyone can work,” said Ben.

There is also likely to be some rethinking of companies’ location strategies. “In the past, we’ve put offices in specific geographical places to attract talent in that particular location. But if remote working becomes more effective and acceptable, then the relationship between talent attraction and physical offices could change and, for some companies, there may be a need to reenvisage the way they attract talent.”

A view from IT – Chris Hewertson, Chief Information Officer, APCOA Parking

“We’re certainly not going back to the way it was,” said Chris Hewertson. “The realisation is that it does work and people are not slacking.” In the final year of a master’s degree in organisational behaviour, Chris is conducting a thesis on perceptions of remote workers. The deep scepticism that people once felt for colleagues who work from home has now largely disappeared. “I would say that it’s gone. Not 100% but pretty much gone.”

Having been to many office of the future conferences and led two of his own, Chris has seen the cost savings some of these initiatives can deliver. He feels there are five key areas companies will need to think about when returning to the office:

Catching up and cleaning up – Companies who have never done remote working will have to put policies in place. These will include remote device security. “PCs have been taken home, plugged into wi-fi networks and now they’re about to be taken back into offices and plugged into the corporate network,” said Chris.

“WhatsApp is very popular but try using that in Germany. It’s a nightmare from a GDPR perspective.”

Security – There’s been a huge increase in cyber threats such as phishing and CEO fraud. More remote work means more risks to security.

More long term tools – Companies need to invest not just in software but in infrastructure. “It’s great working on home wi-fi networks, but people will come back into the office and expect video conferencing en masse, which the network might not be able to handle. They’ll need a hardware strategy. We were lucky to move everyone to laptops last year. It’s hard to get laptops right now.”

Engaging with employees – There are stronger workers’ councils around Europe, with stronger employee engagement. “When we come back, people will want to know how remote work fits in with daily life.”

Shared workspaces – From working in various large shared workspaces, Chris has noticed one common denominator: cleanliness. “People’s main concern when first using a desk is always ‘is my desk clean.’ Companies will need to figure out how to work with AB teams and hotdesking. There needs to be high visibility cleaning.”

A view from people and culture – Finn Vestergaard, Group People and Culture Director, ISS/AS

“We started coming back to work four weeks ago,” said Finn Vestergaard, a member of the Group Emergency Response Organisation (GERO) leading the COVID-19 response globally. Finn’s based in Denmark, where companies have already taken the first steps back into the office environment and a one-metre social distancing rule is now in place.

Every stage of the return process has been planned, monitored and assessed. ISS first brought back 25% of its workforce to see how things would go. They then interviewed these employees to get their feedback on their return to work, before bringing in another 25%. The two halves of its workforce now come in on a rota basis.

The company has dramatically increased cleaning of the workplace, but just as important as cleanliness itself is the visibility of cleaning. “People feel you’re taking care of them,” said Finn. The company’s achieving this through signs, posters and hygiene stewards who answer questions and engage with employees to ensure they feel comfortable.

“It’s easy to handle people who are ready to go back, but harder to deal with people who are worried about coming back,” said Finn. It’s important to speak to employees through company meetings, emails and surveys to understand their key concerns and ensure these are addressed. ISS has put together a pack entitled ‘Our Way Back to the Office,’ based on interviews and surveys of over 1000 ISS and client employees globally.

ISS has also devised a touchpoint framework to review every point of their employees’ work journey and the interactions that take place. This allows them to identify the areas that might be affected by COVID-19 and to take actions to reduce the risk. Senior management has been trained on how to engage with staff and Finn has been personally welcoming people back. “It’s important to look them in the eye and make them feel safe,” he said.

While transitioning your workforce back to the office, it’s also important not to forget about people working from home. ISS is creating social communities for its remote staff, livestreaming fitness, bingo and other activities to keep them engaged and feeling like part of the team.

“It’s the balance of getting people back into the office and treating them in the right way,” said Finn.

Conclusion

The longer term effects of COVID-19 are not yet clear. The process of returning millions of employees to the workplace is a lengthy and complex one. With many organisations facing significant revenue loss during this period, the big challenge will be to make significant changes while conserving cash. What is clear is that this process will need to have people at its heart. It’s not just about making the office the right environment, but about making all workplaces the right environment. Whether the workplace of the future is physical, virtual or a combination of the two, it’s crucial that it’s a workplace catered to the needs of the people who occupy it.