With the coronavirus still in our midst, what does the future hold for the workplace?

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SINGAPORE: The COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost every facet of life, with people having to get used to new ways of doing things.

Singapore exited a two-month-long “circuit breaker” designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 on Jun 1 and is now in its second phase of its reopening.  But while some activities have resumed, work from home continues to be the default option.

READ: Singapore’s circuit breaker and beyond – Timeline of the COVID-19 reality

It seems most employees do not have a problem with this. In a survey done by EngageRocket, almost nine in 10 respondents said they wanted to continue working from home in some capacity, even after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Employees also said that their productivity improved significantly while working from home.

Productivity isn’t the only issue though. The analytics provider also found that many employees have concerns about returning to the office. The potential uptick in COVID-19 cases and co-workers’ compliance on safety measures are among their biggest considerations.

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READ: MOM issues fines, orders closure of workplaces for failing to comply with safe management measures

MISSING THE CAMARADERIE

But while employees have adjusted to the home office setting, EngageRocket’s internal poll of its own employees showed that some still hope for a return to the office.

“We are preparing ourselves for the worst, which is to continue working from home for the rest of the year. But ideally, it would be nice to go back and see people again,” said EngageRocket’s founder and CEO Leong Chee Tung.

“People say they miss the collaborative space together working on the same topics. They also miss the social element, just simple things like having lunch together, or going out for drinks after work,” he added. 

READ: Rise in firms offering mental health support for staff but more can be done, say experts

NEW WORKPLACE ECOSYSTEM

When the time comes and many people do eventually return to the office, workers are likely to find a new workplace ecosystem in place, said experts.

That ecosystem, however, is unlikely to be in a single location. It will likely be made up of multiple locations such as work from home, work from a third location, as well as the traditional office setting.

Hybrid workplaces could include high street cafes and local community co-working spaces, and the traditional office is likely to serve as a venue for staff training, mentorship and culture-building, said experts.

“The functions that require a lot more brainstorming like marketing will want to come together. That’s where people start to interact and, you know, ideas spark and all those things,” said Ms Carol Wong, total workplace lead, Asia Pacific, Cushman and Wakefield.

READ: Goodbye office – Is the future of work in our homes?

The future workplace is also likely to include more outdoor spaces, terraces and roof gardens and collaborative spaces are likely to be redesigned.

Such changes involve a sea of change in the way we think about office design.

“We have spent the last 20 years becoming more and more open plan. We have collaborative spaces and we have networking coffee points and we have ping pong tables where we can all come together across departments,” said human resources consultant Marieke van Raaij.

“Now, facilities managers around the world are doing a massive U-turn on all of this. They are redesigning this new normal – and this new normal will be more partitioned and more segregated and more controlled,” she added.    

NEW OFFICE DESIGN CONCEPTS

One example of this new normal is a “Six-Feet Office” concept at property company Cushman & Wakefield.

The concept, which seeks to ensure a separation of six feet between employees at all times, is already in place at some of its offices in Singapore and Australia.

Employees travel in one direction, to minimise potential cross-contamination. Meeting spaces have also been right-sized, to ensure there is safe social distancing in enclosed meeting rooms.

READ: Commentary – COVID-19 is reshaping what work looks like

For Dell Technologies, remote work will continue to be the norm for most of its employees.

At the same time, it has engaged data scientists to help design risk assessment tools and ensure workplace safety for essential workers that support IT operations and cybersecurity for clients.

“Let’s drop the thinking that collaboration is impossible through remote (working). That’s not the case. The tools have gotten so amazingly sophisticated that we can do these things,” said Mr Amit Midha, president for Asia Pacific & Japan and Global Digital Cities at Dell Technologies.

For remote working to succeed, companies will require new tools, new systems, new policies, and new mindsets, he added.

MINDSET CHANGE

Singapore serves as Dell’s Asia Pacific headquarters. The company’s executive centre, research and digital labs are located in several offices. A connected workplace programme that was established in 2009 has helped Dell adjust to COVID-19 disruptions.

“We made a bold statement that work is not anchored to one place, and more specifically, is focused on the outcome. With the circuit breakers and the lockdowns, we almost had 90 per cent of our people working from home and that outcome was pretty phenomenal. We literally had to switch it on, and we were ready to go,” he said.

READ: Commentary – Please don’t end work from home. It’s not that bad

Even as workers and managers work apart, the new norm can be viewed in a positive way, said Dell.

“We can be a lot more selective in what is critical and important to get something done,” said Mr Midha.

“Sometimes when we work remotely, when we use technology, we become very goal-oriented. Sometimes we lose the human connection. And I think this is the culture we have to ensure in every company: that we keep the human connection. We need to make sure that we highlight the importance of trust and empathy. It is very important that our managers are cued to manage the team members remotely,” he added.

With more people working from home, businesses may also need to re-structure benefits that could subsidise better Internet access and support ergonomic work tools.

“When we’re working from home, there’s a common joke going around: ‘Are people working hard or are they hardly working?’ We need to design workflows and projects in a way that has more obviously trackable and measurable outcomes,” said EngageRocket’s Mr Leong.

READ: The Big Read: With COVID-19 annihilating jobs, many are feeling the pain – and it will get worse

Evaluating staff performance will also require a rethink.

According to human resources consultant Ms van Raaij, who is director at boutique consulting firm Up! Advisory, the annual performance appraisal system is becoming outdated.

“The more sophisticated and more aware firms are already using much more active feedback channels to get timely feedback to allow for really prompt course correction,” she said.

“They are respecting that people can get the work done in their own time and be measured for that outcome of their work. So not how they did it but how well it’s done and whether it’s delivered on time is becoming more and more, the variable you see within a performance management system,” she added.

READ: Commentary – COVID-19 has stripped work to bare bones – was all that excess needed anyway?

In the end, the pandemic may actually create a new workplace environment.

“The workplace is actually going to become more human-centric, where because of that lack of face-to-face interaction, everyone, leaders, employees, teammates, we don’t take that interaction for granted anymore. So when we do meet in person, it’s a lot more purposeful. There is a lot more care that needs to be shown for each other,” said Mr Leong.

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