Use the COVID-19 delta pause to rethink the purpose of the office

As most companies put their plans to return to offices on hold due to the COVID-19 delta variant, use the time to rethink your return-to-office plan.

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It has been a great year to be a pessimist, with what seems like a parade of dark clouds marching over the horizon to obscure each fleeting vision of sunnier days. Most organizations have delayed their plans to return to physical offices, several using gloomy terms like "indefinitely" to describe their delay. While few enjoy shelving carefully crafted plans to return to a state of seemingly unending uncertainty, the pause in return-to-work plans due to the COVID-19 delta variant provides additional time to do some deep thinking about what the future holds for physical offices.

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Offices need new clarity of purpose

If nothing else, COVID has proven beyond all doubts that many jobs that fall under the nebulous knowledge-worker umbrella can effectively be performed remotely. I work in a field where, for decades, the baseline expectation was that each Monday, you would hop on an airplane and arrive at a client's office to perform a job and then disappear into the friendly skies on Thursday. The consulting profession didn't end without the in-person interactions, and in fact, thrived.

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Over the past months, in many cases, remote workers have swapped commute time for family or fitness time, cramped cubicles for customized home office setups, and an eight- to ten-hour day seeing and being seen for focused bursts of effort interspersed with everything from meditation to side hustles. Of course, this transition has not been all unicorns and rainbows, with some workers being forced to carve an office out of a corner of their apartments, or trading commute time and lunches with colleagues for endless videoconferences and the sense that they were living at work rather than working at home.

In either case, it's hard to dispute that the nature of work has fundamentally changed. However, in their return-to-work plans, too many companies assume that a post-COVID return to normal means going back to the same old way of working centered around the physical office. This is akin to thinking we'll abandon our smartphones to return to the normal of slide rules and landlines. If your company will continue to retain physical office space, it needs a revised and refreshed purpose and benefit to justify its use. Or it will be ignored by your employees, to the point that mandatory return-to-office policies could become a handicap in your ability to retain and hire talent.

The repurposed office

What functions might a reimagined physical office space serve? The most straightforward is providing a workspace for people who are unable or unwilling to dedicate space to a home office. Rather than a dusty, disused table with a couple of janky chairs that passes for a hoteling desk at many offices, provide modern, functional equipment. Due to the rise of simplified connections like USB-C, desks with large monitors, video conferencing, keyboards and mice, it's now easy to connect any laptop and can make coming into the office a treat rather than a burden.

The second theme that drives a desire for many executives to return their teams to offices is ad hoc collaboration. The fabled "chance meeting at the water cooler" between workers in different functions that results in a company-saving innovation is a legend that's often cited as justification for mandating that hundreds of people spend 40+ hours each week in an uncomfortable cubicle.

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While these ad-hoc collaborations certainly do occur, why not focus on proactively creating the right environment for them instead of the highly inefficient act of glomming people together and hoping for the best? Instead of a burden, make it an event to come into the office to collaborate, think and act differently. With some diligence and facilitation, prime your people for an "innovation day," and bring them together with intentionality in the same physical space. A few dozen hours of preparation and a focused day or two in the office will likely produce far better cross-organizational collaboration than a year of chance afternoon encounters over the stale bagels someone left in the break room.

Finally, consider how you might use the office to perform activities that can't be done remotely or at home. For example, many companies have swapped their tech-support dungeons in windowless basement rooms for concepts similar to Apple's Genius Bar. Is a bland conference room the right environment for those critical in-person meetings, or might a lounge-style room filled with whiteboards and Post-Its be more effective? Rather than leaders lamenting their inability to roam the halls and shoulder surf their staff, why not create recurring "ask me anything" days, where you informally meet with your teams, hear about their work and establish personal connections?

Although delta is disrupting plans around the globe, many companies' return-to-office plans have been built on the faulty assumption that the old way of working is not only preferable, but something employees will gladly embrace despite the innovations and evolutions of working during the last year. Use the pause wrought by the variant to take your plans back to the drawing board, and you'll likely end up with a significantly more effective plan for the future of your offices.

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