How will COVID-19 affect the traditional office?
Safety will be at the forefront of business decisions, experts say
Flexible plans and a firm understanding of what workers require to do their jobs well are key to making in-person office work succeed throughout the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
Offices are not dead, said David Zweig, an organizational behaviour professor at the University of Toronto.
Workers “might not be 100 per cent back to the office,” he said. “But I think there is going to be a push to have much more presence in the office than what we currently have, or can have now.”
Working from home has not resulted in the massive decreases in productivity that many managers feared, but some workers find it difficult to collaborate with colleagues while working remotely. This means office spaces need to accommodate in-person individual and group work.
Darren Fleming, CEO and broker of record at Real Strategy, a commercial real estate consulting firm in Ottawa, said offices may need to reduce their space — perhaps by 25 per cent — but there’s still a significant number of workers who would like to work from the office for at least part of the week, alongside those who are unable to work from home.
“We anticipate that there will be some peak times, rather business or social, that people need to be in the office,” he said.
Preparing for sudden changes
The pandemic has drastically increased the pace of change for occupational health and safety, said Andrea Jacob, an occupational health and safety specialist with the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Hamilton, Ont.
Typically, companies have several months to update their policies and practices before a regulatory change, she said. Throughout the pandemic, government orders and advice has changed swiftly, with little notice.
“The pace of change is just a major change itself,” said Jacob.
Some jurisdictions require companies to have specific health and safety plans for COVID-19.
“A good thing to incorporate into that control plan is daily checks for your jurisdiction to see if any changes have been made.”
Regional classifications can impact how offices operate, and workplace leaders should also stay up to date on industry specific regulations. Some health-care workers, for example, work in offices, Jacob pointed out.
Employers will need to communicate with employees regularly about occupational health and safety — even those who are working from home.
“Instead of annual health and safety training, workers might need weekly or daily updates or reminders,” said Jacob. “The pace of that has definitely increased. Employees and clients need to stay informed about what the current requirements and safety precautions are.”
These precautions could include adjusting schedules so offices don’t get too full; having employees work in cohorts; and directing traffic within the office — for example, designated one stairwell for walking upstairs and another for going downstairs, she said.
Companies need to have a plan about how to respond to changes in their organization. This means “managing change carefully, instead of just jumping into a choice,” said Jacob.
Potential hazards and benefits of actions need to be considered.
For example, the pandemic has increased the amount of cleaning required at offices. But not all cleaning products are the same. Part of managing the change in cleaning frequency is considering if fragrances or dyes in some products could be harmful to workers, said Jacob.
Rethinking office space
Office layout and furniture need to be re-evaluated as businesses adjust to not having all employees at the office for a standard 40-hour workweek.
Staggered schedules could result in smaller office spaces with more shared workstations. However, Zweig predicts there will be a “reckoning” with the trend of open-concept offices.
“That’s not a good approach,” he said, noting it can make it harder for teams to meet, and sometimes for workers to find a place to sit that’s conducive to the tasks they need to complete. It also isn’t very suitable to a pandemic.
Workspace layout “isn’t a one-size-fits-all” solution, said Zweig, noting that when it comes to offices, business leaders should consider adopting an “activity-based work” mindset.
In this model, physical spaces become a “palette of resources” that workers can take to do their tasks. Offices should have a number of rooms that can be used for both team meetings and personal offices, according to Fleming.
And because meetings will likely have fewer people, these spaces can be smaller and used for individual offices when there are no meetings, he said.
“The social contract between the employee and the employer is going to change a little bit,” said Fleming. “Before, when your boss expected you to be there from 8:30 to 4:30, there was a lot more reason for the employee to expect that his or her seat was going to be dedicated to them.”
“Once you get two or three days a week when you work from home, then it’s not going to make any sense.”
Companies should invest in furniture that can be moved easily — such as wheeled tables or sitting areas that can be quickly reconfigured — or can change to meet the needs of different workers, like desks with adjustable heights. There should be plenty of space for mobile devices, and meeting rooms should be equipped to accommodate workers who attend meetings via videoconferencing, he said.
Purchasing new furniture may be a significant expense at the beginning, said Fleming, but if companies downsize their office space, the amount they save in rent could balance out the cost.
Alongside all of this, managers need to be careful to manage employees’ expectations and general happiness.
People are naturally territorial, said Zweig. “Once we have a space, in our mind it’s our space… We do things to make sure we (keep) that space our own.”
Some workers may become unhappy if they notice their colleagues have designated spaces to work, and they don’t, he said.
For shared environments to work, everyone needs to take ownership of tasks like cleaning, said Fleming.
“In a shared space, the onus has got to be on the person leaving the space, as well as the person sitting down, to clean everything.”
If there are constant struggles about who will wash the dishes in the sink or empty the dishwasher, then a workforce likely isn’t ready for a shared work environment, he said.
They may also need a worker designated to make sure cultural standards are being maintained, similar to the way librarians make sure everyone can use a library the way they need, said Fleming.
“There is somebody with organizational authority who is there to enforce the cultural behaviour,” he said, noting that specific person needs to have enough seniority that they’re confident reminding senior staff of the company policies.
Regardless of approach, employers and managers need to remember workers’ needs. Remote work showed the need to be flexible with workers and not to base productivity solely on the amount of time workers are in front of their computer screens.
“We have to change the performance metrics,” said Zweig. “We should be looking at: Are they getting things done? Are they performing well? Are they meeting deadlines? That should be the performance criteria, not if they’re sitting at a computer for eight hours straight. Hopefully with this experience, there’ll be more acceptance of that.”
Fleming cautioned companies against making sweeping generalizations about what workers will want. Employee engagement and consultation is critical before making changes.
“With any human population, you can’t just unilaterally say, ‘This is the new way that we’re going to do everything,’ and find that everyone will be universally pleased,” he said.
Making a change mandatory — especially without asking employees for feedback — can often increase employee stress, or cause them to leave, said Fleming.
Those in decision-making positions are encouraged to “have a discussion and find out who (workers) are as individuals and what their needs are as individuals.”
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Toronto.