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Thinking Beyond the ‘COVID-19 Secure’ Workspace


Photo of office workers with face masks
Image: Akarawut -
As some essential workers begin to return to their workplaces post-lockdown, organizations also need to be thinking about those people who can work at home but might be better off working, at least part of the time, in the office. A “COVID-19 secure” workspace is essential, but only a minimum requirement for ensuring the safety, wellbeing, and performance of these people as well as the effectiveness of their organizations. We will need to plan even more smartly and progressively as we bring people back into the new normal workspace.
Red and Blue Don’t Make Purple!
In particular, some of the suggestions being made for developing new office environments make little to no sense to me. For example, setting up red and blue teams to work in shifts, or in alternate four days on/10 days off or similar arrangements may help people spread themselves out more but will almost certainly result in new silos emerging between the color groups.
Historically, remote workers have generally felt disadvantaged when the majority of employees are co-located. However, a mixed environment, where around half the workforce is at home and the other half is in the office, is going to be much harder to manage than either having everyone at home, or everyone in the office. Divisions between workforce shifts will almost certainly be just as significant as those which have tended to exist between office and remote staff, or between organizational functions, or people working on different floors of the same office — all of which were already bad enough.
More fundamentally, if we have to close alternate or even two in every three workstations and have people look out in different directions, separated by partitions and sectioned off in departmental neighborhoods, we’re going to eliminate most of the benefits of having people working in an office environment in the first place.
(And while I’m in rant mode, I might also ask whether companies will require people to put their business attire back on when they do return to office working. Everyone has seen how people look working in casual clothing over the last few weeks. Do we expect anybody to look different when they’re back in the office again? It’s not that there’s anything inherently bad about a suit or other business attire, but dressing up is likely to bring back other, broader expectations that we’ve largely managed to get rid of recently, so why increase the risk that these other norms will return?)
Individual and Group Work
Having people work in individual offices made sense when I started work 30 years ago and when much of what most people did was work on their own against their individual objectives. However, as I describe in “The Social Organization,” most work today involves communicating, collaborating, and cooperating with other people. The main purpose of the physical workspace has developed into somewhere people can serendipitously bump into each other and more purposefully get together, as well as to develop trust between these individuals along with some sense of a shared social identity. And yes, also to spend some, but an increasingly minor proportion, of their time on individual deep work.
In theory, building trust starts with a background level of warmth and assumed competence based on everyone working in the same company, department, and possibly location. This is then reinforced by personal contact between individuals and in small groups to develop deeper levels of trust between those working together on a sustained basis.
However, in practice, most organizations don’t usually manage or enable trust-building very well, meaning that relationships are just as likely to be dysfunctional as supportive, and that many people spend more time engaging in petty politics and turf warfare than they do actively supporting one other. Just having people in the office is no guarantee that trust will flourish.
Additionally, today’s digital workspace can provide many of these social benefits. Over the last five years in particular, digital technologies have made it increasingly easier for disparately located people to work with each other, supplemented perhaps with occasional face-to-face get-togethers. Over the last couple of months, a much broader range of employees have now seen how effective digital communication has become.
This technology isn’t perfect — missing the social cues of face-to-face communication can lead to cognitive overload, mental fatigue, misunderstandings, and relationship problems, but these can all be largely overcome if there is the desire to do so. Probably the main opportunity is to balance synchronous and asynchronous communication — not everything needs to be done in a Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Meet meeting.
And, of course, neither the physical nor digital workspace, nor both together, provide the full support that people and groups will need. Organizations will need to ensure that management and HR processes and practices are aligned as well. This is likely to include more focus on ensuring that the responsibilities and objectives of employees and their teams are clear and that these are regularly reviewed, while allowing people greater freedom in the ways they achieve their objectives. We also all need to go to town on inclusion, to try to ensure that everyone is able to optimize their contributions, wherever and however they are working.
So, What’s the Point of People Going to the Office?
The shifted trade-off between working remotely using digital tools and going into an office will be particularly clear when the new office option means that people are not even going to be able to work together very effectively. This is even before we start to worry about the difficulties of getting to the office on public transportation; booking the right time to get a slot in the elevator or eat lunch; or using the washroom.
So, what is the point of people going to the office? OK, actually, there will still be a point for some people. In particular, businesses will need some staff in the office for reasons such as technology or security, or when work is more complex and needs face-to-face relationships (although is speaking through clear plastic panels or from a six-foot distance really going to help this much?). It may also apply to staff with mental health problems that would be helped by working in an office; staff with poor home working conditions; and highly extroverted individuals who just need to be around other people.
Similarly, there will be some staffers who would probably never want to visit the office and would rather remain at home, using digital technologies to do their work and communicate with colleagues. This is likely to include strong introverts; staff who would need to use public transport; parents providing home-schooling; or just where risks of using the physical workspace cannot be managed very well.
However, the greatest proportion of staff may want to work flexibly between home and office environments. Some people are now itching to get back into the office even with all of the difficulties and limitations this may provide. But they’re unlikely to want to do this five or even four days a week.
In addition, the use of the office becomes more complicated when you consider the varying needs of organizational groups rather than just individuals and the whole organization. As I discuss in ‘The Social Organization,” and as I’ll explain further in my next post, these groups are functions, horizontal teams, communities, and distributed networks. Organizations need to respond to the needs for flexibility from individual employees, but they need to respond to the various needs of these different groups, too.
In Part 2, I’ll describe how organizations need to address these different groups in the way they develop and use their connected workspaces.