By Angela Finlay, Chief Human Capital Strategist, Windward Human Capital Management LLC
It may soon be time to dust off those heels and loafers and dry clean those business casual clothes; in-office work will be coming back soon.
All research indicates that the future of work will still involve going into an office but not in the same way that we have seen it in the past. A Gartner survey indicated that 82% of employers expect to allow some form of remote work post-pandemic. Employees will no longer need to plan office visits between 9 am to 5 pm during the workweek; 43% of employers expect that there will be flexible schedules and 42% expect that they will incorporate flexible time into the new working arrangements.
So, with some form of return to office on the horizon, employers should start to question what the office will really be used for in the future. Given that the same Gartner survey indicated that 87% of the employers did not have concerns about sustained workplace productivity for remote work, do we really need the office to do our work anymore? The answer is abundantly clear – offices are not needed for the masses to get our jobs done. We know that emails, reports, presentations, and research can be done just as well at home (or, at least, when kids go back to school, we know that it can be done just as well). So why should companies invest in the office at this point? PWC’s US Remote Work Survey found that 87% of employees say the office is important for collaborating with team members and building relationships. In the same survey, employers say that the purpose of an office is to increase employee productivity, provide a space to meet with clients, enable employees to collaborate effectively and enable company culture.
What really is the purpose of the office in the post-pandemic world? We know that we do not need it for cubicle space – just sitting at a desk in the office does not make us productive. We also know that employees, for the most part, prefer to work remotely at least part of the time. This leads us to understand that, if the future office is meant to foster culture, build collaboration, onboard and connect employees then we need to really start thinking of the future office as a place for Collaboration Days.
What exactly are Collaboration Days?
Collaboration Days are designated “everyone in the office” days when the team can be together. The expectation is that most of the day is scheduled for activities that include project planning, team collaboration or brainstorming meetings, development opportunities or roundtable discussions. The days should not be focused on bringing people in to do individual work at desks. Instead, the focus should be on activities to build culture, communicate and connect.
How would Collaboration Days work?
The leaders establish “collaboration days” in the office when all employees will be expected to be in the office for team-based discussions and projects. In order for the connections and culture building to be sustainable, the Collaboration Days should be set at least once a month, but preferably, more often if possible. They can be set around a new employee joining the team, the kickoff of a project, or the celebration of a team accomplishment. This burst of communication monthly should be used to propel the work needed in the weeks to come by energizing the team and strengthening inter-team relationships.
The emphasis of collaboration days can also be to set expectations and timelines for project or task milestones for the upcoming weeks and months. One of the biggest complaints we hear in the remote work environment is the growing number of emails and messages received every day. If done well, these Collaboration Days can get these messages out to the teams and free up time for the work to get done in the weeks ahead.
Companies should rethink their office space in relation to Collaboration Days. “Conference rooms, meeting spaces and video studios will take up a lot of office space. The workplace will become a far more social environment, not a “lock myself in the office” scenario. It will be designed to foster and promote interaction and community engagement—taking advantage of the times talent is collocated in one place,” according to William Arruda in a Forbes article in May 2020. The space should allow for these team connections and, as companies experience the benefits of Collaboration Days, we should see far fewer cubicles and offices in the workplace. We will find moveable pods and shared conference tables (with social distancing space, of course) to allow the in-office interactions to be the community building experiences that they need to be in a post-pandemic workplace.
Harvard Business Review published an article in 2020 that stated that the best method of communication for remote work is to communicate in “bursts.” Having led global teams where we worked in different areas of the world on a regular basis, I have seen the results of high communication periods (such as during a Collaboration Day) followed by limited communication to allow the team members to move initiatives forward. By pushing the vision, the goals, the brainstorming during the Collaboration Days, it allows leaders to engage and energize the team. The energy and clarity formed on a Collaboration Day needs to be followed with quiet time for the team members to dig into the work. As articulated in the HBR article, “Our research suggests that such bursts of rapid-fire communications, with longer periods of silence in between, are hallmarks of successful teams…Bursts, in turn, help to focus energy, develop ideas, and achieve closure on specific questions, thus enabling team members to move onto the next challenge.”
To lead successfully in this environment, a leader must be:
- Laser focused on the vision and goals
- A clear and consistent communicator
- An empathetic and human connector
- A collaborator at heart
Expectations of leaders in our organizations have not really changed in this pandemic; we always incorporated many of these attributes in our leadership profiles. However, the criticality of these skills has never been this important. It goes without saying, but focused leadership training on the competencies that matter in the future of work will really be the key to an organization’s success.
The pandemic has forced organizations to test new ways of work, whether we were ready or willing at the start. We have pushed the boundaries of what our organizations and teams can do over the past year. Now is the time for leaders to avoid falling into our usual comfort zones – the ones that make us feel better to go back to the “old normal” even when we knew it was not necessarily the best structure before. It is like an old sweater that we want after a long year of uncertainty and chaos. However, the organizations that will thrive in the future will use this opportunity to rethink the workplace and really push to build a better workplace design that allows for stronger organizational cultures. Building a workplace with flexibility to use different environments for the right purposes – a quiet home office for “heads down” concentrated work with office collaboration days to create bursts of energy and connectivity will be the key to a successful workplace in the post-pandemic future.
Angela Finlay is Chief Human Capital Strategist at Windward Human Capital Management LLC. Windward HCM builds sustainable, value drive human capital functions that are aligned directly with driving business performance and company strategic initiatives. We believe that your people programs should be realistic, simplified, data-driven and targeted to your organization. We build transformative programs to meet your people needs for today and in the future. Angela Finlay was a former CHRO/Head of HR at organizations ranging from Global Fortune 150 to small, start-up companies. She is currently a lecturer/adjunct professor teaching Leadership, Strategy & Human Capital Management at Columbia University’s Master’s in Human Capital Management program and Yeshiva University’s Executive MBA Program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.