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Connected Workspace Reset: Planning the New Normal Office

In my recent two-part “Beyond ‘COVID-19 Secure’” WorkSpace Connect series, I suggested that companies need to plan for the return of their employees to the office by thinking about the individual needs of these people and also the way that they work together in teams, communities, and distributed networks.
I primarily argued that we should try to think through how people and groups can best do their work, using the return to the office as an opportunity to reset, rather than simply as an exercise in limiting damage. It’s not going to be enough just to see how many people we can get back to doing their work in the way things used to be done before lockdown.
But actually, it is possible to plan even more strategically than this. In my first two WorkSpace Connect articles (here and here), I noted that a strategic basis for the connected workspace starts with having a clear understanding about the organization capabilities a particular business is trying to create. Capabilities can focus on organization capital, where the workspace is part of the value provided by the way people and work are organized, or they can focus on human and social capital, where the workspace helps create more value in people, and the way they work together.
In my third article, also in two parts (here and here), I went on to suggest that this way of thinking provides a basis for best-fit workspace design, in which organizations seek to align their physical and digital workspaces with their own specific needs, and in particular, the organization, human and/or social capital that they seek to create.
From this perspective, the prevailing thinking that organizations should rotate teams in and out of the office on one- or two-week cycles has at least two major problems. First, this can only ever likely be a best practice, rather than best fit, unless we do some deeper thinking. And second, it takes no account of the way people actually do their work, and therefore, is actually unlikely even to be a very good best practice.
Developing an Effective Return-to-Office Strategy
To develop a more relevant and effective approach, I recommend businesses work through the following three steps:
  • First, they need to be clear about their desired organization capabilities. Will these focus on agility, innovation, learning, collaboration… or something else? Linked to this, they also need to be clear about whether the workspace will act as a basis for organization capital, or as an enabler for human or social capital. Social capital has been becoming more important for many businesses, and along with it the need to focus even more on the needs of groups and networks rather than just the preferences of individuals. The chosen capabilities will influence the nature of the connected workspace required, and the balance of physical and digital aspects within it.
  • Second, there is a need to identify organization principles that explain how each particular organization, including the workspace, is planned to work in delivering the required capabilities. These statements may include whether the organization aims generally to be more co-located or remote, centralized or decentralized, technology-based or focused on face time, etc.
  • Third, organizations can then think about different options that could meet the organization’s objectives, expressed through their capabilities and principles, and comparing the pros and cons of each option against the agreed objectives. This should enable them to pick the best, most suitable workspace strategy for each particular organization. There may then be variations on this, across countries, locations, staff groups, etc., but it makes sense to undertake the thinking at the top level first, and then cascade this down, tailoring it as required.
Note, this does not mean the thinking can be done by senior leaders, IT, facilities/real estate, and related functions alone. The connected workspace needs to be designed in an inclusive and collaborative way, involving as many people from an organization as possible, especially if its organizational capabilities relate to social capital. This might mean working with representatives from across the organization to decide what to do, and then working with individual teams, communities, and networks to understand the details of how they want the workspace to work.
In addition, design is likely to be an iterative process, where new options are identified during both design and implementation activities, and where the capabilities and principles themselves may need to be updated based upon new learning generated in introducing and using different options.
There are six main options that organizations need to consider during the third of the steps described above, and these I will explore in Part 2 of this article, coming tomorrow.

Join us at Enterprise Connect Digital Conference & Expo on Wednesday, Aug. 5, to get insight on balancing distributed and office work in a fireside chat with Melissa Marsh, founder and executive director of PLASTARC, a social research, workplace innovation, and real estate strategy firm. Register today!