Vaccine implementation across the country is giving way to easing of social distancing restrictions. With successful vaccine deployment many are getting ready to transition back to a physical work environment. As we transition towards a physical workplace, we will need to remember the many individuals in various work situations who never had the luxury of working remotely. We need to remember that many had to manage in a hybrid work environment. The transition to a physical workplace, thus, means different things to different groups. As things progress though there are more questions than there are clear answers. Many of us are asking ourselves what this will mean to our new patterns of life and work. Most of us have developed and perfected new life patterns through the past 15 months that we love. In my opinion that is one major area of challenge as we transition into a new normal.
The old work environment, whilst effective, has gone through a test forced upon us by the pandemic. As we consider returning many of us are asking ourselves this question “what are the advantages of being together in a physical office space?”. There are many answers to that question. Today, it is clear none of these answers are based on any rigorously tested studies.
What I Miss Most In The Physical Workplace
Personally, I have been working from home in the past 15 months. I have been in my office probably less than 10 times in that period. When I ask myself what I miss most in a physical office there are 3 things that stand out.
- Being able to get out of my office and walk over to a colleague to discuss or get their thoughts on an idea or project that I require their input on. Over the pandemic I have used chats and phone calls, but I don’t get the same inner satisfaction. I don’t know if the results from my in-person discussions are better than the calls and chats that I now use. I can however say after 15 months that I still prefer talking face to face on complex topics and ideas.
- Having meetings with colleagues sitting around a table and being able to get feedback on discussion without them needing to say a word. In some settings being able to do that can be extremely valuable. That type of feedback has been missing with our zoom calls. Usually not everyone is sharing video and if they are sharing it is still a challenge monitoring all concurrently. In a real meeting room one sweeping gaze around the room will suffice.
- Meeting a random person in the hallway who has been missing for a few weeks only to learn of their wonderful vacation or time spent visiting family in other parts of the country. These moments when we allow the work masks to fall off briefly are unique to the in-person environment. These are the times when one is allowed to peek into the lives behind the facade that we all wear at work.
What Will Our New Work Environment Look Like?
All these activities have changed intrinsically with the remote work environment. When we eventually return to our new work environments these opportunities will change in frequency and quality. It is clear to many that the new work environment moving on cannot be a replica of what we had previously on account of what we have learned over the past 15 months. We are all aware though that we cannot continue what we had to make do with under pandemic precautions. We are therefore moving into the new uncharted territory of the post Covid-19 workplace. This is a workplace that none of us knows that well but we all hope will fulfill most of our dreams.
Dreams never come that easy so we should be ready for the usual disappointments that come with trying new things. On a more positive note though, we need to learn to savor the opportunities these new developments present. We will have to learn to navigate these new workspaces whilst developing new skills and ways of doing things. We all hope these changes will help bring us more success. This is not going to be easy because it involves managing people and expectations. Organizations should be ready for the increased employee turnover that will come with navigating these new systems. Team members would need to be ready to help their organizations navigate the change whilst ensuring they get the most out of it. We will need to remember to help our organizations build a new workplace that allows us to grow both in our careers and personal life.
How Do We Get To The New Normal?
If your organization is not listening to your concerns you may need to ask yourself if your requests or concerns are niche and not reflective of a broader group. Most of us can do that by talking to a few trusted colleagues about this. Organizations will need to figure out how to maximize the benefits of the new work environment without losing one key constituent of organizational development, creating a community. Organizations that manage the change well and develop a sense of community in the new work environment will reap the gains of a happier, more productive workforce.
On this note, I would like to say let’s all get ready to work to create the workplace of the future. We need to make our visions of the new post Covid-19 workplace a reality. In this endeavor we will need to ensure we include the magic that made going to work meaningful whilst having the flexibility to live our personal lives with less work-related stress.
By Dr. Leonard Sowah, an internal medicine physician in Baltimore, Maryland