A work meeting in a conference room of eight people sitting at a table.

What Absolutely Should NOT Return to the Physical Workplace?

April 28, 2021 Digital Workplace
By Dom Nicastro

As good as remote work has been for some companies and employees, most say they’re not ready to give up the office just yet. A PwC survey earlier this year found that although 83% say remote work has worked for their company, only 13% say they’re ready to abandon the physical workplace for good.

Hybrid work seems to be the reality. Microsoft, for example, developed a “Hybrid Workplace Dial” that anchors to six defined stages. As of late last month, the company was moving from “work from home strongly encouraged” to the “soft open” stage.

But what’s going to happen when we do return to the office? Now that we’ve had about 14 months away from the office, what is it about the office that should never come back? What bad habits, policies and general approach should companies abandon forever as employees return to offices?

“The last year changed every employee," said Amy Mosher, chief people officer at HCM technology provider isolved. "And employers who don’t change with them risk alienating a workforce that, often for the first time, experienced what it was like to be in charge of when, where and how they worked." 

Frequent Air Travel for Employees

If COVID-19 taught us anything about the workplace, it’s that this digital thing is kind of empowering. And that means companies need to rethink policies that keep employees in the sky endlessly traveling globally for work meetings.

“Flying anywhere domestically and internationally for a work meeting that could be conducted digitally instead,” Paul Miller, CEO and founder of the Digital Workplace Group, said when asked about a pre-COVID-19 workplace practice that should never return.

Global airline travel was down at a peak of of 69.9% in May of 2020. And even though it’s trending up with more flights and passengers increasingly comfortable with COVID-19 prevention tactics, not to mention vaccinations, companies should reconsider their travel expectations for employees, according to Miller.

“Our mindset, well-being and culture should place ecological preservation and protection front and center, alongside the physical and mental health impacts of routine, often thoughtless, air travel,” Miller said. “Keep the flights for rare and significantly important or crucial physical meetings that require travel across long distances. Explain that this is ‘company policy, driven by ecological and health reasons post pandemic.’"

Related Article: Are We Going Back to the Office or Not?

Culture That Encourages Employees to Come to Work Sick

No company leader would ever say, “Come to work even if sick.” (We certainly hope not). But you’ve likely been in companies whose culture around sick policy is, even if unsaid, “It’s just a cold. Get online.”

Coming to work sick, or sending your child to school sick, is a pre-COVID practice that has to stop, according to Carrie Basham Marshall, CEO and founder of communication and collaboration strategy company Talk Social to Me

“COVID has shown us just how transmissible some illnesses can be, and it isn't fair for colleagues or classmates to be exposed to a sick person just because an adult feels pressured to be physically in an office,” Basham Marshall said. “Companies need to offer more grace and care for employees and their children who are ill by welcoming work-from-home days or flexible sick days when someone in the family isn't well. It's the right thing to do for public health.”

Inflexible Office Hours

While remote work was a necessity for many over the last year, it will become more accessible for employees who enjoyed the flexibility which it provided, according to Mosher.

So don't go back to being inflexible with where employees work. A hybrid approach to office and remote work will only grow in popularity and improve recruiting and retention.

“With a hybrid office-remote environment, the office itself also becomes more friendly to work at,” Mosher added. “No longer do employees need to be jam-packed into a space. With social distancing and employees opting to work from home, HR leaders can provide a more comfortable working environment, so people have space to hear themselves think and feel more at ease at their workspace.”

Inflexible Paid Time Off

Mosher believes in trusting employees and added that countless studies have shown that non-accruing paid time off (PTO) is not an abused benefit. Why limit employees to two weeks of PTO when the facts show just how beneficial it is for employees to recharge?

“So often employees use their PTO for things like doctor’s appointments or to get errands or household chores done, which leads to burnout,” she said. “By extending PTO, there’s a better opportunity for the time off to be used to come back to work refreshed and more productive. The pandemic showed us we need to make choices that are best for ourselves and our unique situation. A more flexible approach to PTO gives the employees choice while also benefiting the employer.”

Related Article: Return to the Office and Employee Experience Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

A One-Size-Fits-All Learning and Development Approach

Todd Moran, chief learning strategist at NovoEd, an online learning platform, said one thing that should not return to the workplace in a post-pandemic world is instructor-led, in-person training as the default learning and development approach for enterprises. The pandemic proved that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to how employees conduct all aspects of their work, including how they learn and grow their skills, he added.

“In-person training isn’t always the optimal approach,” Moran said. “ …While a return to in-person work may become a possibility for organizations later this year, returning to all in-person learning and training could impact the progress employees and enterprises have made over the past year. Looking to the future, business leaders should focus on building out blended learning opportunities that combine in-person and digital elements to create an effective, engaging L&D program for every single employee.”

All Things Old-School Workplace Must Go

The pandemic has revealed the ways in which organizations can thrive and embrace less rigid rules and practices than what was once the traditional 9-to-5 culture, according to Shane Metcalf, chief culture officer at 15Five.

This could mean no longer requiring in-office working hours, reducing the expectations of formal business attire and mitigating the physical barriers between managers and their employees with hotel-style open office spaces, Metcalf said.

“Rather than keeping to the pre-pandemic method of starting the day with checking emails and chugging along through the first few meetings, consider starting every day with an energizing all-hands, or ‘boost’ meeting, that connects the organization as one team and one creative mind, right from the start,” he said.

Through video calls, we’ve seen and gotten to know the “whole-self” version of employees and colleagues over the past year, he added. This includes spouses, kids, pets, home decor, family photos, everything.

“Softening the disconnect between professionalism and humanity, while still recognizing that everyone should be able to 'log off' at the end of the day,” Metcalf said, “will be key in leaving behind the past and moving toward a more engaged and inspired global workforce.”

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