The new normal: What will our offices look like?

"Companies are giving the business leaders in each country a little more leeway to work with their employees"

The new normal: What will our offices look like?

Sending a global workforce back to physical office buildings that span jurisdictions is no easy feat — there are many moving parts for leadership to consider. Although there may be corporate-wide policy for management of the workplace as employees return in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is also a lot of nuance from place to place.

“Companies are giving the business leaders in each country a little more leeway to work with their employees,” says Karon Woodcock, Director of Change Management for Cushman & Wakefield in the Strategic Consulting Group.

She gives the example of one company that told its employees they will continue to work from home for the foreseeable future, and would provide communications if anything changed. But for its offices in some countries, that might be difficult — for example, in some countries people can’t work from home because they don’t have Wifi or even electricity in some places, so those employees have to come into the office, Woodcock notes. Leadership in some of those places will have to do what they can to safely bring those employees in.

Another example are companies that have allowed employees to take equipment home — in some countries there are tax implications if that equipment is moved to a different district.

“Each area has to look at what’s best for them,” Woodcock says.

But as time progresses, best practices are beginning to emerge, as outlined by Cushman & Wakefield in Recovery Readiness: A How-to Guide for Reopening your Workplace.

The guide compiles advice from over 53,000 professionals, and while the migration of employees back to physical places of business will look different for every organization the recommendations have been successfully implemented at offices around the world.

“What we see is most of the companies, especially the larger ones, are putting together a return-to-work task force so you have the key stakeholders all together,” says Woodcock.

The task forces consist of HR, facilities, real estate, technology, supply chain and procurement and exist at the corporate level as well as for each of the regions where the company has office space to ensure correct guidelines, local laws and regulations are being followed.

Woodcock says companies have to provide each level of leadership with that guidance, and she is seeing those who have returned to work meet to share best practices and also what they’re struggling with, that then the return-to-work task force can help them with.

Many companies are also putting together a reentry guide for employees in advance of their return, much like the package you would get when starting a job with a new company. The guides will be updated as the company figures out what works best, and will be helpful for new hires down the road who are missing out on the current flurry of training.

“We’re seeing that a lot now with the new normal office,” she says, adding that these reentry guides have to be customizable — she’s working with a large company with many regional offices, so they’ve created a guide for each of them because guidelines differ.

“The main things will stay the same you just have to give them the option to put in what’s different for their office. For example, how do you badge in? Are contractors allowed in? How about visitors? That may vary in the smaller offices.”

Certain countries may have specific legal guidelines around working from home or how many people can be in the office, but using guidance from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization Cushman & Wakefield developed the 6 Feet Office concept, which was quickly adopted as one of the post-COVID “Golden Rules.”

“Keeping that social distance of six feet — we’ve seen that certainly take on traction in all of the offices across the world,” Woodcock says. “It’s not just the six feet it’s how you move in the office, how many people you put in the elevator, how you enter the office. We like to think of it as from the curb side to the desk side.”

Each company has their own ways to implement it, she says. Most use signage around the office to remind people of the new routine. If they’re in buildings that are leased, they depend on the owners of the buildings to put guidelines in place around visitors. A company may decide everyone in their offices has to wear a mask or check their temperature before coming in, but some locations require guidance that goes “a little bit further outside the workplace.”

“They’re looking to their employees who have to take public transportation, because in some countries that’s your only choice in how you get to work, especially some of the smaller countries,” Woodcock says. “So they’re providing that guidance of if you take public transportation to work, here’s some recommendations on what you want to do.”

While employees want to hear from “the top of the house,” having engaged people leaders in each office is just as important because that's who employees look to when they have questions about how things will impact them.

“It’s kind of back to the basics — get your communications out, make sure you’re keeping your employees informed,” Woodcock says.

She advises the companies she works with to make sure they provide their people leaders with the information to answer employee questions so that they understand the changes, and recommends “Change Ambassadors” from the employee population who can help serve as a bridge between the workforce and management.

Woodcock also advises some type of training to help those people leaders manage a team that is most likely partially in the office and partially still working remotely.

“What I’m finding is not all are prepared to manage a distributed workforce — we’ve got some companies that have leaders who are struggling with that a bit.”

When there’s a crisis it can go one of two ways — everybody starts to butt heads or they start to collaborate, Woodcock says, noting she’s happy to see many examples of the latter with the organizations she works with.

As the recovery readiness guide states, one thing is clear — the management of the return-to-work process is without precedent. Regardless of the many considerations global companies especially have to juggle, across the board people are just trying their best to find the way to a safe and productive new normal.

“Be responsible, stick to the rules, follow the signs,” Woodcock sums up. “Those are the guidelines all the companies are following.”

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