The Covid-19 pandemic has drastically changed the way we interact with other people. Restrictions on social behaviour became necessary to curb the spread of the virus. These restrictions were felt heavily in the workplace. All work and interactions retreated into workers’ homes and solely onto their laptop screens. Organizations had to set up satellite offices overnight, and the masses moved from boardroom tables to dining room tables. Now that restrictions are easing, what’s it like for people as they begin bringing their work back into the office?
Office meetings: physical versus digital
GoogleMeet, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Webex, Skype for the workplace
Video conferencing platforms like GoogleMeet, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Webex, and Skype became vital tools for keeping in touch with co-workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Physical meetings weren’t possible, so these digital meetings surfaced to fill the gap. But preferences for physical and digital meetings varied, and they still do. As we start bringing our work back into the office, we can’t help but compare digital meetings with physical ones. Some people prefer digital meetings as they can simply turn off their camera and attend in their pajamas. Others find the lack of connection in digital meetings hard and prefer face-to-face meetings.
During the pandemic, many people struggled with not being able to judge micro-expressions or tone in digital meetings. With the camera turned off, it’s not easy to gauge reactions and receive feedback from others. This can cause feelings of anxiety. These digital meetings were the only way to touch in with other team members. As a result, team members felt isolated. Video conferencing platforms offer greater digital ‘connection’ opportunities. But they don’t always allow for a more human and emotional connection. Besides these personal preferences, there are both advantages and disadvantages to office interactions as a whole.
For technology companies, physical meetings make it easier to collaborate immediately with other team members on projects. Meetings can be called quickly and without much planning. Problems can also be explained and solved with greater efficiency. On the other hand, digital meetings allow offices to hire remote workers from other locations and keep in touch. These digital or physical meetings preferences play very strongly into companies’ decisions. Do they keep the work at home, bring it back into the office, or take up a hybrid working solution?
How to bring the work back
Home, office, or hybrid work
Now that working remotely is possible, companies need to identify the solution that works best for their organization or team. Should all work be remote, and employees stay at home? Or should everything go back to pre-pandemic settings with everyone in the office full time? Many companies have chosen to find a solution in the middle as they start bringing work back to the office. They are now making hybrid working options available to employees.
A survey conducted in six countries by Slack showed that 72% of workers prefer a hybrid working model. Only 12% liked working entirely in the office, and 13% stated they would prefer to always work from home. Remote working has also been linked with higher productivity levels. Being at home removes commutes, and workers can manage their own time. So, hybrid working is the most popular choice for employees.
Identifying the best way to bring your organization and team back
It’s easy to understand why hybrid working is so popular. It gives employees greater flexibility. Some days you can spend completely in the office. On others, you can work at home and take care of household tasks between your work tasks. Those days at the office also allow you to change out of those sweatpants. You can then interact with your colleagues in an environment designed for work. So now that employers know what their employees prefer, how do you start bringing your team back into the office?
There are many ways of bringing work back into the office. This decision depends in the end on your business’s and your team’s needs. If you want to cut back costs a bit, you might opt for more remote working so that you can reduce office space. But if your work requires collaboration, you may have less choice in giving your employees working from home options. It’s crucial to identify your primary goal first and then work it out from there. Your goal could be collaboration, reducing office space, increasing productivity, or building an office culture. It’s all about finding the best fit for your team.
Bringing back your work clothes
Dressing to be seen not just for your laptop screen
The most visible change for bringing your work back to the office is your clothing. We’ve all seen the jokes about wearing ‘business wear’ on your top and pajamas on your bottom—where the screen can’t see you. We’ve also all done it and just hoped there wouldn’t be any need to stand up… This top-half bottom-half split shows that what you wear at the office is often different from what you wear at home. Away from the gaze of your office co-workers and the laptop screen, you can dress differently. In your home, you tend to opt for softer, less restricting fabrics and loungewear for comfort. Getting back into the office means a very clear change.
Workwear is informed by ideas of what professional clothing is: not revealing, no denim, no t-shirts, and no sweatpants. With work back in the office, everyone can see what you’re wearing from top to bottom. It’s not just what you show them in the rectangle of your laptop screen. This change back into more restrictive wear can be difficult, as we’ve become used to the freedom of loungewear. But having different clothing for work and home can also help the brain with productivity. Wearing workwear can put the brain into work mode and then into relaxation mode when you change back into loungewear. Dressing in this way can allow the brain to focus more clearly on the task at hand—working or relaxing. This can result in greater overall satisfaction.
How to set up the office
Hot desks versus set stations
A set station is just how it sounds. It’s an assigned, permanent desk or space. This is the more familiar model, arising from the standard work and office set-up. With the creation of technologies that allow for more flexible working, hot-desking has become an option. Employees can now log into their work systems from any laptop and communicate with each other digitally. The need for an assigned employee workspace has lessened.
With hot desks, workers plug their laptops into any available desk as they need to. The space is typically much more open, with people grouping in their teams or where there is available space. Employees can now spend part of the week working from home. Hence, the popularity of hot desks has increased following the Covid-19 pandemic. Is this a feasible way for bringing work back into the office, or will it have a negative impact on team morale?
How office set-up has an impact on team morale
Hot desks allow for a reduction of real estate and office space, as fewer employees are in the office. This is a huge cost saver for businesses. Supporters also believe that they increase collaboration as employees aren’t separated by walls. But such open spaces do raise concerns about team members who prefer a more private or quiet space. Such an environment could cause their morale to drop as they dread bringing their work back to a busy office.
Since that space doesn’t belong to them, workers can’t decorate their workspaces with personal objects. Such a stark contrast between the office and their at-home workspace could cause them to feel the split between work and home more keenly. Suggested solutions for this are that employees personalize their laptop wallpapers as much as possible, have portable personal objects, and have detached spaces for collaboration to make open space is less chaotic.
Bringing it all together in the workplace
From home isolation to office socialization
We should all give some thought to re-integration and socialization following such an extended period of social isolation. We were in our homes for months on end, in bubbles with only our families. We’ve become used to working from our homes, hopping onto calls and into meetings when needed. But otherwise, we have been isolated from our co-workers. Given the spotlight the pandemic put on office structure, it may be time to consider everything we’ve learnt. We can then move forward in a new way if we’re bringing work back into the office.
How to integrate back into office life
Depression and anxiety rates jumped during the pandemic. The greatly increased levels of isolation had a lot to do with this. Loneliness was exceptionally prevalent as the normal spaces of connection—workplaces, schools, universities—were closed, reducing opportunities for connection with others. So, returning to socialization in the office is vital for addressing this ‘loneliness epidemic’. How we do this is not as easy a choice. We have to relearn lost social skills, how to work with others around us, and how to dress for the office. Your commute time is also back, and you need to take your lunch with you. Bringing work back into the office may be positive for reducing feelings of isolation. But it will require some effort to re-socialize.
We have learnt from the pandemic that we can work in different ways; we can be more flexible, find a greater work/life balance, and restructure the workplace. With our socialization back into office life, we should thus reflect on which interactions and structures are most vital and which we can rework. In technology companies especially, the necessary technologies are there. How you use them to facilitate bringing work and social interactions back into the office is up to you and your company.
Have a look at our YouTube channel for some helpful back to office tips and tricks.