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The “New Normal”: What will the workplace look like post COVID-19?

September 15, 2020 | by Viveka Krishnaswamy
Reviewed by real estate expert Jonathan Wasserstrum

COVID-19 has disrupted and revolutionized the workplace for the foreseeable future. While it’s hard to envision going back to what we knew as “normal” any time soon, we can expect to enter into a “new normal” era post-pandemic. But what will this new normal look like?

The New Normal Post-COVID-19

After COVID-19, we foresee that most workplaces will…

  • Have more rigorous hygiene standards and protocols in the office. While cleanliness has always been a crucial part of a good office environment, the coronavirus pandemic has really highlighted the need for a universal set of specific precautions. Future hygiene standards will likely include hands-free technology to avoid touching shared stations and objects (such as automatic-open doors, hands-free hand-sanitizer, hands-free sinks, and more); barriers between workstations to prevent airborne transmission of pathogens; de-densification of the office; and frequent monitoring of building HVAC systems. Additionally, workers will be encouraged to stay at home if they’re feeling ill, and PPE will be available for those who request it. For the foreseeable future, social distancing measures will also be in place to reduce spread, and companies may even adopt office shift scheduling algorithms to intelligently distribute in-office time amongst employees.
  • Adopt a mix of in-person and virtual work. Remote work isn’t going to be a permanent, full-time fixture in the lives of most American employees; there’s just no replacement for the collaborative benefits of an office environment, and career development can be extremely difficult to achieve in a remote setting. Still, COVID-19 has underlined the need for flexibility and preparedness, especially when it comes to telecommuting. Employees will be equipped and empowered to work outside of the office when the need arises, and office layouts will shift to reflect occupancy trends. Jonathan Wasserstrum, SquareFoot CEO, posits a “theory of thirds”: a third of employees will want to come back 5 days a week, the next third will want to come in for the majority of the week, and the last third will want to come in primarily for specific events.
  • Improve their crisis preparedness plans. During the initial stages of the coronavirus outbreak, many companies realized that their crisis management plans were lacking as they were forced to react in real-time to an unfolding situation. With the potential of re-spikes, companies have now begun to develop more robust crisis management plans to ensure that, in the event of further outbreaks, they will not need to compromise on communication, productivity, engagement, recruitment, and overall workforce management. Businesses will be able to adapt more quickly to new challenges to ensure that operations run smoothly.
  • Offer digital alternatives to some processes. The way in which companies do on-site work will change; consequently, they’ll want to have the option to conduct certain processes digitally. For example, amid the pandemic, businesses built out their remote recruitment capabilities in order to continue with hiring via virtual assessments, video interviews, and more. Hiring managers have had to figure out how to convey the company’s values and culture in a virtual setting. It is likely that companies will continue to offer digital alternatives in order to improve their adaptability.
  • Look into flexible leases. The 5-to-10 year lease will largely be a relic of the past as companies look to avoid long-term lease commitments in their quest to retain flexibility. The balance of power in the tenant-landlord relationship has started to and will continue to shift as the market begins to favor tenant needs and create a mutually beneficial environment for both parties.
  • Incorporate modular furniture. As workplaces become more flexible, the need for modularity will increase. Employers will need to have the ability to adapt and redesign their workspaces to accommodate for changes in occupancy and social distancing guidelines, and to be able to convert spaces to accommodate a variety of activities. This furniture will also need to be easy to clean and disinfect.

Benefits of new normal

Though the prospect of a new era of working can seem daunting, there are a variety of advantages to this new normal:

  • Employees will enjoy different styles of working. Prior to COVID-19, most companies had either one traditional office or coworking space per metropolitan area. As a result of the pandemic, companies have begun to incorporate different styles of working to accommodate a variety of employee needs. Satellite offices, for example, allow employers to adopt a hub-and-spoke approach to offices; companies may opt to have one downtown hub with satellite workspaces in the suburbs for suburban employees so as to de-densify the main office. This benefits employers and employees alike, as it’s a great opportunity for companies to save on urban real estate costs by downsizing their downtown offices.
  • Employees will have greater flexibility. The pandemic forced workers worldwide to adapt to remote working overnight. Though it was clear that the many cultural, innovative, and collaborative advantages of in-person work had taken a serious hit, employees were able to prove that they could step up to the plate and successfully work from home. As we ease back into the office, and as employers make adjustments to allow for a better mix of in-person and virtual working, employees will be empowered to work remotely when they need to. While some companies offered this flexibility prior to the pandemic, the pandemic has ushered in a new era in which flexibility will become the norm for most.
  • There will be a greater focus on employee wellness. COVID-19 has sparked a lasting focus on employee health and wellness. The toll that the pandemic took on employees who found themselves suddenly isolated has prompted companies to offer more mental health benefits to their staff, and, more broadly, to expand their support for employees. SquareFoot, for example, implemented a “mental health day” program that offered employees one day off every few weeks to focus on well-being. One McKinsey study found that 80% of respondents surveyed reported that company leadership proactively took steps to ensure the health and safety of employees amid the pandemic. The importance of support for employee health has never been more prominent, and we anticipate that this trend will continue.

The “new normal” in the office will hinge on flexibility, health and wellness, and adaptability; employees can expect many benefits from this new era of work.

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