From the Firm: What ‘back to normal’ might look like at work

“When things get back to normal…”There’s a good chance we’ve all said this sometime during the last year. If you’ve wondered what “normal” might look like in your workplace when/if you return, here are some trends and information that might help us see into the future of the office.

Working from home isn’t going away 

This is the way the workplace was headed before the pandemic forced us to make the leap—and it’s worked better than most employers and employees expected. A 2021 Microsoft survey shows that 73 percent of workers want to continue flexible work options after the pandemic. And why wouldn’t they? We maintained productivity, enjoyed the flexibility of working remotely, and saved money and sanity without daily commutes.

screen showing four people on an online video call, waving at each other

Based on positive results, it appears that many industries are moving toward a hybrid workspace model. For most, this means working from home two to three days a week and onsite for the remaining days. A smaller group of employees will likely continue to work remotely full-time.

Office space may get smaller

A hybrid work model means fewer people in the office, so many companies are reconsidering the amount of office space required. There will be more focus on shared spaces and what’s known as “hot desking” (spaces that any employee can use when they come to the office) instead of personal spaces. Kate Lister from work consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics predicts that offices may flip from 80 percent personal space and 20 percent shared space to 20 percent personal space and 80 percent shared space.

A few industry giants like REI, Ralph Lauren, CVS Health and Old Navy have announced plans to cut the amount of space they use in favor of smaller and more collaborative layouts.

Creating a positive culture will take dedication

It’s more challenging to foster a company-wide sense of comradeship through a screen than it is in person. As we become more comfortable working remotely, it’s easy to slip back into a routine where you only interact with your team, while others recede into the background. At the office, you pass people in the hallway and say hello or chat with them in the lunchroom. When the opportunity to cross paths fades away, so does familiarity. This makes it difficult to maintain connections and presents a challenge for new hires.

To solve this issue, you’ll see management make an extra effort to connect people across the company. Perhaps more than any other change, this will be a work in progress as we try to figure out how to build a positive culture with limited in-person human contact.

Remote technology will make us more human…and more mobile

On the positive side of online connection, it can be easier to bond with individuals when you get a glimpse into their personal space—including family photos, pets, bookshelf selections and other telling background accessories. Additionally, we’ve all moved through a life-changing global pandemic together. In the Microsoft study, one in six people said they cried with a co-worker during the year, and 40 percent said they were no longer embarrassed to have people see their homes. These are the experiences that humanize us all.

These shared experiences will prove helpful when and if co-workers do end up working remotely and/or moving away. According to Microsoft and Owl Labs surveys, nearly half of workers said they’re planning to relocate now that they can work remotely—in many cases leaving big cities for smaller towns that offer more affordable living. This search for a better quality of life can benefit employers, too—giving them access to a country-wide range of talent.

There’s no doubt that some things will be very different when and if we return to our offices. Because the pandemic isn’t over yet, the changes mentioned here are still evolving. However, it’s a good bet that you’ll see some level of these changes when our work lives return to “normal” again.