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Return to Office: ‘So Much Left to Learn’


Peering into the unknown future
Image: jozefmicic -
At some point, workplace strategists will be able to look back and understand what the events of 2020 have meant for the connected, collaborative workplace. But today, still deep in the throes of norm-shattering global crises, we can only reflect on what’s happened, predict what might come, and hope for a better tomorrow.
And so, in this final post of the year based on my ongoing series of conversations with Melissa Marsh, founder and executive director of PLASTARC, a social research, workplace innovation, and real estate strategy firm, that’s just what I’ll do… share a reflection, a prediction, and hope.
A Reflection…
As I discussed in a recent post, some workplace strategists have embraced “Workplace 2030” as a conceptual ideal, manifested in a model office opened in San Francisco to showcase the technology, services, design, and practices that will carry forward from the lessons learned to date during the pandemic into the future workplace. While not a COVID-response workplace per se, as Brandon Cook, Workplace 2030 executive director told me for that post, this model office, complete with “mudroom” style entryways and privacy areas for health screenings, is about “taking everything we’ve learned in the last five or six months and applying it to how we design an office for the next 10 years.”
But Marsh suggested that this sort of physical workplace rethink may be premature. From her viewpoint, the issue is that “we haven’t quite figured out yet if we need to design for a future with COVID and a continuous germ situation or whether that’s really going to be over and we’re going to be able to organize ourselves in a space the way we want to or the way we would have before this.”
As she reflects on what’s transpired this year, Marsh characterized our understanding of workplace requirements for the future as being like a cup half full. “There’s just still so much left to learn,” she said.
A Prediction…
That said, one thing that does seem certain is that people will return to the office next year, in some capacity. When they do, they’ll be bringing with them all sorts of new work-life expectations and ideas about personal identity based on the experiences of 2020, Marsh said. And, she predicted, they’re going to recognize that it’s OK to be a complete person and that there doesn’t have to be a strong line between our work selves and our home selves.”
On one level, this will come in the form of physical appearance. They’ll expect to be able to continue with the relaxed dress modes adopted while working from home, as well as with personal grooming that plays to inclusivity — “that would include longer hair, or facial hair, or certain styles of hair that were previously considered undesirable in the workplace, either for racial or other pseudo-hygiene reasons,” Marsh said. In other words, people aren’t going to be willing to tuck away their personal identities any longer just because they’re going into a corporate workplace, she added.
Here’s the upshot: “You no longer will have to go to work and pretend that you don’t have kids, or that you don’t have a dog, or that you don’t have a life, or that you don’t sweat when you go to the gym… when we go back to the physical office, we can be more authentic about all the other pieces of our lives.”
The WFH explosion has “changed corporate decorum of what is and isn’t OK,” and that, she added, will mean we’ll come out of the pandemic with a far healthier workplace environment than we had before it.
A Hope…
Although she’s a self-professed optimist, Marsh said she gets overwhelmed thinking about the pandemic’s impact on urban centers. “When nobody is going into the city, it just feels like such a different place. It’s like a ghost town,” and who wants to work in a ghost town? Making cities feel great again is already such a challenge — “there’s so much to solve for” — and yet we face at least another six months of “economic purgatory” for the hotel and hospitality industries that help bring life to a city.
So, Marsh’s wish for 2021 would be this, she said: “for our urban environments and cities to make it through, and to be there when the workforce comes back.”