Your workers want to keep working from home. Now what? – SiliconANGLE - Freelance Rack

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Monday, July 6, 2020

Your workers want to keep working from home. Now what? – SiliconANGLE

As a company leader, you have probably read countless articles during shelter-in-place on the benefits and downsides of remote working. There have also been a lot of articles on steps to reopen offices under social distancing guidelines, and your company is several months into remote working.

Now it’s time to start longer-term planning to determine what percentage of your employees will continue to work remotely more days a week or indefinitely. You will need to gather information from various departments to help guide your decision-making.

Survey your employees

If you haven’t done so already, start with an immediate survey of your employees. You will want to survey them again over the course of the year, and again when the pandemic is officially over, in order to guide decision-making in the moment as well as to compare data over time.

Internal company surveys of your employees will likely indicate that most would like to work from home permanently, or at least several days of the week. You will need to examine the survey data by department and by job function. Remember that the survey tells you what your employees “want” but may not reflect what is good for your business. 

How productive were your employees while working remotely?

Survey results may indicate that your employees self-identified with a wide array of responses when it comes to productivity, ranging from being productive to far less productive when in a remote setting. For example, if your survey results indicate that 85% of your employees identify as being just as productive or more productive working remotely, and there are 15% of employees who feel that they are less productive, that represents a significant percentage of your employees that have struggled during this time.

These employees may have struggled because of issues related to the pandemic itself, their living situation, lack of an effective work space or a lack of productivity tools. A subset of these employees can be offered additional computer monitors and/or office furniture to remedy their situation. However, some employees may need to get back into an office environment to be fully productive again.

You will also need to work with your leadership team at the department level to understand how remote work impacted your business, positively and negatively, and determine how each of your department leaders would assess the productivity of their employees working remotely. Employees who indicated that working from home was productive may or may not reflect the department’s actual performance.

What do we do with our office buildings and the ‘six-feet office’?

If you haven’t already had your workplace, facilities and real estate teams on speed-dial throughout the pandemic, now would be a good time to review your current real estate portfolio, your occupancy pre-pandemic and your current square foot per employee. The last part is key to understand, since it will play a significant role in understanding your physical space needs in the future. 

Ask your workplace/facilities/real estate teams how many square feet per employee you currently have in each of your offices, pre-pandemic. Ask how your employee square footage compares with other companies, particularly within your city. Ask your human resources team for a “heat map” of where all of your employees currently live in proximity to your office locations, including any workers who were already remote. 

Lastly, your workplace and facilities teams will need to come up with a post-pandemic per employee square foot recommendation and how that will affect your overall office square footage needs as you consider expanding your remote workforce, or subsequently plan for most of your employees to return to the office. For example, your company may have had 180 square feet per employee pre-pandemic at a 90% occupancy, and your workplace and facilities teams are now recommending 300 square feet per or more employee to accommodate social distancing requirements as well as a healthier office in the future. 

There has been a lot written around the “six-feet office” that was promoted by Cushman & Wakefield, with some companies reducing the density of their offices in preparation for employees returning by spacing desks out, or in some cases tapping into unoccupied space within their real estate portfolio. Companies that were already in dense, open offices prior to the pandemic, and that don’t have unoccupied space, may not have the option to bring everyone back without adding more office space to their real estate portfolio. Decision-making on expanding permanent remote employees may mitigate the need to acquire additional space.   

Who will work remotely part or all of the time, and who must come back to the office?

Answering the question of how many existing office workers, pre-pandemic, will return to the office will take time but is vitally important. These answers will play a major role in determining everything from fulfilling employee needs, business requirements and guiding company culture to raising or lowering operating costs. 

Will 10% of former office workers work remotely? Will 50% of former office workers work remotely? Will there be a blend of office workers who only come into the office one or two days a week? Will there be certain teams that must come back to the office and other teams that do not?

Also, consider what issues you were trying to solve prior to the pandemic, such as reducing employee commutes and cost of living, increasing employee retention, expanding your talent pool, work-life balance and the like. Your survey results should also give you a sense of how many employees you have who are simply not hard-wired for remote work and need to be in the office some or most days. 

A note to smaller, high-growth companies: The question of expanding the remote workforce may be a more challenging question over time. For example, the manager who, during the pandemic, was remotely managing five direct reports effectively could very well have difficulty remotely managing 10 or more direct reports as the company grows and scales up. Teams may become even more disconnected as well as less accountable. It’s important to work with your HR team to develop remote management training programs that fit your company along organizational structures and give employees visibility. 

Longer-term remote office options

  1. Status quo: Everyone who was an office worker comes back under social distancing requirements until the pandemic ends, when the office returns to a pre-pandemic state.
  2. All or most employees permanently remote: Depending upon how productive your company was before and during the pandemic, employee needs, cost-saving opportunities and leadership’s desire to dive into remote work, you may opt to move a significant portion of your employee population to remote workers. Work with your HR and recruiting teams to build remote management programs as well as to develop plans for remote onboarding. Remember, most of your current remote workers likely started off in a physical office within your culture and were acclimated accordingly. Onboarding a recent college graduate who may have never stepped foot in your office, or been a part of any corporate company culture before, will have a significantly different experience and context with which to find their way. 
  3. A blended approach: Between remote work and in-house office worker, as well as helping to retaining a cultural anchor. The entire concept of an office and what it means to your company could shift from a high percentage of employees commuting in five days a week to one where a certain percentage of employees come into the office for limited meetings, planning sessions or company culture events. You will need to develop policies that have a direct impact on the space that will be required. For example, would employees who come into the office three or more days a week get a permanent desk? Would employees who come into the office less than three days a week find whatever empty desk was open, or schedule a desk for the day that they’re in the office? You will need to determine what your peek occupancy days are as well as reconciling paying for space that might go unused on non-peak days.
  4. Keeping the office culture with a less dense office: Creating more space between desks, more open collaboration space and an environment that involves less noise will most likely be appreciated by your employees if done right. That said, if your company previously had high density, you expect a significant number of your employees to return to a physical work space and you predict additional growth, you will most likely need to expand your real estate portfolio to accommodate new per employee space standards.
  5. Neighborhood office model: After creating your employee “heat maps” to determine where your employees live, consider opening smaller, less dense offices closer to employee housing clusters. This model will allow for employees to meet in person as well as to obtain a sense of work/home balance as hybrid remote/office employees. Third-party collaboration spaces are an option; however, some companies may not want to house employees in spaces that they do not directly control. For larger companies that went through the past decade of office consolidation, it may be time to revisit the megacampus model and consider opening collaboration offices where your remote employee population clusters are.

The ‘healthy office’ is here to stay

In the past, company workplace and facility teams focused on buildings, workspaces and employee amenities. In a post-COVID-19 world, they will also be tasked with creating and maintaining a “healthy office” environment.

Employees have been through what we hope is a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. These employees may have experienced varying degrees of trauma, which are likely to be triggered as future cold and flu season occurs and are noticeable within office environments. Employees will ask, “How is my company protecting me in the office?”

Ongoing attention will be given to cleaning, distance between desks, fresh air quality, partitions and company hygiene policies. There will be varying degrees of implementation and maintenance of the “healthy office” for different companies, but all leaders will need to collaborate and plan with their teams in this new era.

The high-density open office is out of fashion for the foreseeable future. Prior to the pandemic, companies were already in the process of re-examining the dense open-office concept. Studies such as Harvard Business Review’s “The Truth About Open Offices” shed light on some of the counterintuitive aspects of the open office, including a potential reduction in collaboration and a reduction in face to face interactions.

Also, productivity questions have arisen around noise, lighting, overstimulation and inability to concentrate effectively in these dense open-space environments. There can be many positive aspects of the open office as well, and judicious planning done now will help your company strike the right balance in a post-COVID-19 world. 

Joseph Hickman is a director of workplace in Silicon Valley. He wrote this article for SiliconANGLE.

Image: geralt/Pixabay

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