The new normal: What should you expect when you return to office life?

The coronavirus pandemic has forced businesses to quickly adopt and adapt to new ways of working. One thing seems clear--traditional office life won't be the same when we return to our desks.

Working from home: What the new normal looks like, plus remote management tips
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The COVID-19 lockdown has served as a stark reminder of how hyper-connected life in the 21st Century has become, not to mention how much we take for granted the small activities and trivial interactions that bring such value to our lives.

It's also completely upended the traditional approach to working. Over the course of a few weeks, previously office-based workforces are now operating almost entirely remotely, strung together by patient IT teams, chat apps and daily video calls. For flexible working naysayers, the pandemic has proven that employees can, in fact, be trusted to work from home without productivity taking a plunge.

On the contrary, several studies into remote working during coronavirus have indicated that employees are more productive than ever, likely thanks to the lack of office-based distractions, meddling middle management and a renewed focus on business-critical activities.

While the daily office grind will eventually resume, the widespread consensus is that it won't be a return to business as usual as we know it – or rather, knew it. "We've heard from several businesses that they'll be looking to reduce their office space post-lockdown," Peter Groucutt, managing director of disaster recovery firm Databarracks, tells TechRepublic.

SEE: COVID-19: Three business practices I'll maintain from lockdown life (TechRepublic)

"This is from businesses who hadn't really embraced remote working, but now they see it can work; they're thinking about the future savings."

Indeed, some of the most obvious changes we'll see when we return to our desks could be the office itself. 

With our new-found appreciation for personal space, open-plan and bullpen-style offices could be remapped to put workstations further apart, suggests a recent report from Forrester. At the same time, the number of employees being crammed into meeting rooms is also likely to drop, in order to support the current two-meter social distancing rule.

This will be critical to ensure offices and other workplaces don't become a breeding ground for new infections. Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice, suggests this could mean staff are placed on staggered or rotating shifts so that offices aren't filled to capacity.

"One approach to minimize the number of people in the office at any point in time, companies will actually open up their offices earlier and keep them open later," Kropp tells TechRepublic.

"This will spread out the number of people in the office at any point in time to minimize the risk of exposure. Other employers might decide that some employees can only come into the office on the even days of the week, others on the odd days as another strategy to minimize the number of people in the office at any given point in time."

Home working: here to stay

One trend undoubtedly here to stay is a more relaxed approach to working from home. In the future, businesses will be expected to have flexible-working policies in place; Kropp estimates that as many as four in 10 employees will work remotely at some point every week, post COVID-19. 

SEE: Remote workers are here to stay: 4 tips to manage them effectively (TechRepublic)

That means that businesses will need the necessary technology in place to support such policies. "The employees that come into the office will spend more time on a virtual platform," says Kropp. "Even if employees come into the office, given that other employees will be working remotely, they will continue to spend time on their Zoom and Teams platforms."

Scott Crowder, CIO of BMC Software, agrees. "While we don't know what the lasting implications will be, we do know that remote working isn't going away," he tells TechRepublic.

"Whether an organization sends everyone back to the office or sticks with a partial or complete work-from-home workforce, IT must have tools in place to support the modern digital workplace."

Aside from an explosion in the use of workplace collaboration and productivity software, the coronavirus pandemic has also catapulted robotic process automation (RPA) tools into the spotlight.

Bots, for example, have played a key role in helping businesses cope with an upswing in customer demand as physical offices and storefronts closed down. Particularly vital has been the role of chatbots in enabling healthcare and government organizations to issue up-to-date information about COVID-19, and help stop its spread by allowing clinicians to triage patients digitally.

Automation technology has also been key in automating mundane – yet important – back-office processes that might previously have been performed manually, says Peter Brown, partner and head of clients and markets, people and organisation at PwC.

"I think we'll see businesses accelerating investment in those automation and back-office, process-enhancing technologies, that can be done digitally," he tells TechRepublic

"I think a lot of organizations maybe had these on the roadmap, but now they've been brought forward."

BMC Software's Crowder sees automation and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies playing a key role in helping IT teams work more efficiently going forward.

"Tools like automated workflows and virtual assistants via chatbots can route requests for automated response and remediation, or address non-urgent employee questions and requests so companies can free up the time of IT teams for more value-added work," he says.

Tools and technology are, of course, only half the battle: company culture also needs to carry over into the new digital landscape, says Crowder.

Achieving this starts at the top. "Companies should ensure that executives are fully engaged in the designated digital channels," he adds.

They should demonstrate the desired usage and tone of each tool; set healthy expectations around working hours, taking breaks, and work-life balance; and show empathy and compassion during what can be a tricky transition, says Crowder.

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

Reassessing company values

Arguably, the pandemic has also shone a light on the authenticity of organizations, namely whether they live up to the values they claim to stand for. PwC's Brown suggests that the lessons learnt from this will encourage some businesses to reassess company culture, and whether they really practice what they preach. "How organizations 'live it' and demonstrate that [authenticity] is very public and seen," he says.

"With hindsight, I think there are some organisations that will be very proud of the reaction they've taken to COVID, and there will be other that perhaps might have done things differently.

"I think we're seeing more emergence of roles around the culture and wellbeing of staff, and more focus around the purpose point – what is this organization about, how are we living that and how are we ingraining that in everything we do?"

As new roles are created with an emphasis on employee satisfaction and company culture, other positions could find themselves decreasing in demand. With remote working leveling workplace hierarchies and speeding up operations in some instances, companies may rethink the organizational structures they have in place.

In a recent report from PwC, Carol Stubbings, joint global leader of people and organization, suggested that office bureaucracy that had been removed as a result of remote working might not return to some organisations. "Many corporates, particularly those with lots of hierarchy, such as banks and financial services firms, are finding that they can get more done, with non-essential governance removed," she said.

"I've seen one example of a project that would typically take six to nine months taking less than two weeks. As they look towards corporate life after lockdown, clients are asking how they can stop layers of bureaucracy from creeping back in."

Recruiting has also undergone something of a crash-course in digitization in recent weeks. A recent Gartner poll found that 86% of organisations had turned to "virtual" methods of interviewing candidates during the pandemic, while 85% had used digital channels to onboard new employees remotely.

As a result, companies are beginning to recognize that remote working can help diversify their workforce by expanding talent pools outside of the cities – or even countries – in which their offices are based.

Lauren Smith, vice president in the Gartner HR practice, said: "While most organizations are currently conducting interviews remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual interviewing may become the new standard for recruiting leaders and candidates long after social distancing guidelines are lifted."

While many businesses had their hand forced to rapidly scale up remote working, Databarracks' Groucutt suggests that this has enabled some companies to make changes they'd been pushing for for years. However, he adds that the jury is out on whether new commitments are seen through.

"Although there's enthusiasm to keep this going after lockdown, we'll see how many stick to it," he says.

SEE: Sick cats and old PCs: The weird challenges tech support teams face to keep remote workers online (TechRepublic)

Upgrading IT

We should, at least, be able to expect more reliable workplace IT: Forrester's report suggests that organizations that found themselves caught short in the pandemic with creaky architecture will emerge with a newfound appreciation for speedy internet and modern software.

"Business execs who experienced firsthand the shortcomings of legacy technology environments will demand that IT accelerate roadmaps for app and infrastructure modernization, a high-performance network, high-availability architectures, automation for speed and reliability, and cloud for scale and flexibility," the report reads.

"They'll also take an interest in once-unexciting technologies like video conferencing and collaboration tools, phone services, VPNs, and virtual desktops.

"Plan for an upswing in tech support as employees return to the office."

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