A year into the COVID-19 crisis and it is increasingly clear that any expectations of returning to “normal” pre-pandemic workplace conditions are not realistic.
There will be a return to the workplace, buoyed by COVID-19 vaccinations rolling out, but the “new normal” workplace will include a continued reliance on remote work or a hybrid model that combines in-office with work from home.
For those that come to the office, the workplace of the future will have a focus on health and hygiene and safety in flexible spaces.
Not only will the physical space be different, but the workplace of tomorrow will integrate digital transformations with automation and AI taking on new roles.
Remote Work or Hybrid Work is Here to Stay
While the rapid move to remote work was born of necessity due to lockdowns and stay-at-home orders when COVID-19 started, it will likely continue in the future as employers and employees see value to remote work.
We base this assumption not just on a gut feeling, but three different surveys in 2020 – from PwC, Gartner and McKinsey – that found almost 50 percent of companies will continue to allow remote work post-pandemic and three-quarters will consider a hybrid approach.
PwC queried 300 firms around the world in September 2020 and found that:
- 53 percent of companies had remote work arrangements.
- 45 percent said they will not require employees to go into the office once restrictions ease.
- Another 21 percent anticipated a hybrid approach between remote work and office days post-pandemic.
The PwC survey found that the three main drivers of remote work were: health and safety of employees (70 percent); enhancing employee experience (65 percent); and attracting and retaining key talent (60 percent).
“Remote working is likely to be a key part of the “new normal” as companies adapt their operations to COVID-19,” the survey said.
Gartner found similar results with a survey that reported 82 percent of companies planned to allow employees to work remotely some of the time.
- 47 percent said they intended to allow employees to work remotely full time going forward.
- 43 percent said they would grant employees flex days in the future.
- 42 percent said they would provide flex hours for employees.
“The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a huge experiment in widespread remote working,” said Elisabeth Joyce, vice president of advisory in the Gartner HR practice. “As business leaders plan and execute reopening of their workplaces, they are evaluating more permanent remote working arrangements as a way to meet employee expectations and to build more resilient business operations.”
The same month as the Gartner report, McKinsey commissioned a survey of business executives around the world and found that sentiment to allow remote work had doubled:
- Across all sectors, 15 percent of executives surveyed said at least one-tenth of their employees could work remotely two or more days a week going forward, almost double the 8 percent of respondents who expressed that intention before COVID-19.
Health and Hygiene Front and Center in Return to Office
When workers do return full-time or part-time to the office, companies will be focusing on health and hygiene in the workplace.
The Gartner survey found that:
- 94 percent of companies will limit face-to-face meetings.
- 91 percent will provide protective equipment such as hand sanitizer and masks.
- 83 percent will limit or stagger employee attendance in the workplace to allow for more space.
The McKinsey survey said: “There will be challenges in managing a workforce that is working partly remotely and partly in person. Companies will need to reconstruct how work is done, decide which employees and roles are best suited to remote work, and reconfigure and rethink the workplace.”
- 83 percent said they would hire more people for health and safety roles.
- 73 percent said they expected to hire more people to manage on-site physical distancing and sanitation.
McKinsey’s conclusions included new roles in facilities management, including specialists in ventilation, more space between employees and workstations, employees assigned to zones within a building, and the replacing of luxuries such as the coffee bar with health stations.
Digital Transformation in Workplace of the Future
The McKinsey survey found that 85 percent of companies were accelerating the implementation of digital technology such as videoconferencing and filesharing as a response to COVID-19.
The survey found that:
- Almost 50 percent reported increasing digitization of customer channels via ecommerce, mobile apps or chatbots.
- 35 percent increased digitization of their supply chains.
“Adoptions of automation technologies – including robotics, autonomous vehicles, and AI-driven software that can perform processing workflows – has also accelerated during the pandemic, although to a lesser extent than digitization,” the report concluded.
Not surprisingly, companies that reported the greatest shift to remote work also reported the most adoption of automation and AI.
There, of course, will be other trends in the workplace future with Theresa Agovino in SHRM adding increased diversity, equity and inclusion; employee demand for better treatment for themselves and communities; and re-examination of company impact on the environment to the other issues.
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