Remote work and what next? – the new normal

In winter 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread, we feared for our own health and safety as well as that of our close ones. Terrifying news from all around informed us about more and more countries getting closed, entire economies shutting down, and about the necessity to stay home. Suddenly, all lights in office towers were gone as was the buzz in restaurants and desolated streets. Many of us succumbed to fear of the upcoming future, including fear about our work stability. Many quickly learned to work remotely and organized their workplaces in their living rooms, kitchens, or bedrooms. In over ten months we mastered various tools allowing us to work remotely and we became video conference champions. And when many managers could not sleep at night for fear of a drastic loss of their company value, employees felt their social ties at work loosening with each passing week. Gone were random office interactions, those emotional brainstorming sessions and ideations that fuelled our development.

An increasing number of people who have witnessed how their companies functioned in the last months are no longer asking when the old normal will return. What they are asking, however, is what the new normal will be like. After months of being scattered, one could see that even though productivity, especially in areas where tasks are repetitive, did not fall noticeably, creativity certainly did, and in the most diverse fields. Many managers complained they had more difficulty making decisions, and the decisions they did make were more conservative and less innovative. But at the end of the day it is the ability to create new ideas, innovations, and to maintain a stimulating work environment that is key to future development.

In this new normal there will certainly be a place for remote work, but there is a growing number of voices that employees are needed in the office. Being in a shared space is required not only for work but also for random interactions by the coffee machine, during lunch eaten together, or a moment of respite in common areas, all of which – as we well know from experience, but as researchers also confirm – often became an impulse for new ideas and strategies. Also because it is during such interactions that people from different teams and departments finally meet.

It must also be remembered that there are many loud voices claiming that remote work is a huge benefit, that it allows employees not to waste time on commute, but to dedicate more time to their close ones, to work in their own rhythm, and in the place of their own choosing. At the same time, the same employees are dealing with lowered mood and difficulties in maintaining work-life balance in their home offices. So it would be good to treat this pandemic-related turmoil as an opportunity and think about the possible most effective work model – in terms of organizational efficiency and psychological safety of its members. We all dream of returning to normal. But we don't vaccinate enthusiastically enough, and new COVID-19 variants are circulating the world. We are still in the middle of the pandemic, but our attention shifts from mere surviving a crisis to becoming even stronger as a company. It's worth to realize this will be a long process. That is why one of the greatest challenges we are currently facing is how to fuel creativity in the entire organization with the pandemic physically separating us each day and changing the way we work. One word comes to mind – CREATIVITY. OECD report characterizes it as one of key competences in the future, and LinkedIn named creativity “the most important skill in the world”, while others claim “there are many reasons why companies are achieving good results, such as their position on the market or technological leadership. But it’s also true that creativity is the base for business innovations, and innovation is the driving force of growth”. And that, without saying, is the greatest loss caused by the pandemic, especially in the long term: being closed in tiny, dull worlds, and eliminating direct cooperation between employees.

I’ve got a feeling that the function of offices is currently changing. According to the report “New Normal in the Workplace 2021”, offices are slowly changing from traditional work places to places where organizational culture forms, places of learning, forming ties with co-workers and company clients.

That is why knowledge-based organizations are currently implementing the hybrid system. From the point of view of employee wellbeing, how quickly we will return to the office and what office schedules will look like are secondary issues. What is more important while designing our return to the office, in my opinion, is to consider several aspects that build company success and stable development. These are:

  • teamwork,
  • creativity and innovativeness,
  • onboarding of new employees,
  • motivation and feeling of belonging to the organization,
  • educational processes,

That is why, while building the new normal, it’s worth to organize work in such a way so as to take into account all these areas. It will certainly be a huge challenge for company managers, and in particular those responsible for HR policy.

We can already observe certain actions that will most likely set new trends, such as organizing meetings of teams initiating a new project, brainstorming in the office at the beginning of working on a new strategy for a given department, etc. This possibility of group creative sessions, direct interaction, has a stimulating and motivating influence on employees, especially those who appreciate remote work and treat it as a benefit of sorts. One can often see these meetings are more valued than typical team-building events. The feeling of belonging, doing something together, having direct contact with co-workers are all very refreshing and help build the wellbeing of both employees and their company.

Many employees have appreciated the comfort of working from home also in terms of the interior – the friendliness, safety, and aesthetics. This will probably inspire company managers to think about office space from a different perspective. For employees to derive most from working in the office, to feel the benefits of working together in shared rooms, it's certainly good to develop the trend already seen in recent years, namely attention to detail. In the near future, offices will become more and more unique in terms of interior design, well aligned to different needs of people and their varying activity. Common areas are already becoming more intimate, cafeterias or kitchens in office buildings currently look more like home or a café than a formal office room. Modern design, custom made furniture, often being an example of modern art, and art itself present in the interior design, all this is more than mere aesthetics. Numerous research show that art helps to take active care of one’s mental endurance but also stimulates creativity, increases competences in terms of communication and relation-building.

You couldn't have missed the arrival of plants in the office. Again, green walls, shrubs on terraces, or even constructing buildings around old trees, aren't just aesthetic procedures or a desire to stand out. To quote the authors of the aforementioned report: “This leads to a visual connection between man and nature through the introduction of natural surrounding elements inside. Apart from attractive look, it lifts the mood, partly because of increased oxygen production”. Again, it’s worth to bring up scientific research, which clearly shows that direct contact with nature allows us to maintain our wellbeing, or even prevents depression. Not without significance is the influence of plants on air quality, and combining them with proper, safe systems that prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria may increase the feeling of safety and reduce fear of viruses and bacteria, escalated in many people because of the pandemic.

So, what will the New Normal be like? Definitely in the office, but designed with greater care and mindfulness, allowing various work models, stimulating creativity and innovativeness. Flexible space use, chance to personalize and adjust the surroundings to specific projects carried out by the company may help create a place where the employee would want to come. It is my opinion that work in an office treated as a safe, creative space may increase personal motivation, development need, and contribute to a feeling of wellbeing. Then such work will become for many an alternative to remote work, enriching it with other experiences and opportunities

Dorota Minta
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