Article originally published by In the Black Magazine

As staff are welcomed back to their offices, we can expect a dramatic – and timely – shift in the use and purpose of workplaces.

Historically, the biggest changes in society tend to occur after a major disruption. As humans, we become comfortable with a certain way of doing things, and when individuals suggest dramatic change, their ideas are perceived as fringe.

However, when an upheaval occurs – a world war, a financial crisis or a pandemic – those same ideas quickly become mainstream and sensible, rather than radical.

There is a good chance that major change could occur in offices over the next few months, says Rhonda Brighton-Hall, HR thought leader and founder and director of mwah (making work absolutely human).

If this change does occur, she says, it is not a moment too soon.

“We designed the way we’ve been working in the 1860s,” says Brighton-Hall, a Telstra Businesswoman of the Year national award winner and former director of the Australian HR Institute.

Working an eight-hour day, five days a week, and accepting that everybody must fit into this model has been crazy for a long time. Along the way, everything in the entire world changed, but the strict rules around how we work never did.

“It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not how we work best. It’s not how we think best. It’s not how we contribute best. We lost the essence of what work is, and instead got stuck in a ritual of what work should look like. It hasn’t worked for a long time, and I’m glad we’ve now been forced to look at other options.”

Those other, post-pandemic options have begun to be expressed in various announcements, such as news from social media giant Twitter and from mobile payments company Square (both share the same CEO) that all employees will now be able to choose to work from home, permanently.

It’s not just tech firms that are joining the remote working revolution. Such options are also being explored by leaders within numerous other types of businesses as they survey their staff about their return.

“There have been many moments in time throughout history where things have changed and we’ve learnt great lessons,” Brighton-Hall says. “Some of those lessons are about what doesn’t work. At mwah, we’ve been talking about the ‘curated workplace’. What do we want to keep doing? What do we want to stop doing? What are the new things we want to introduce from the lessons we just learned? What are we still missing, and what have we still got to learn?”

In fact, asking such questions to all staff individually, and listening deeply to their responses, is one of the most vital ingredients in the recipe for success, experts say. Nobody yet knows the best solution for their business in facing return-to-work challenges. Yet once leaders ask their staff, they’ll have a lot better data to use to move forward.

There is no template

David Smith FCPA, founder of Smithink, member of several boards and consultant to professional services firms, has been deeply involved in discussions about how to manage the post-COVID return to work.

The most important fact to accept upfront, he says, is that there is no template. This is one of the rare problems in business that will not have a shared solution across any two companies. The solution instead depends on location, industry, the mix of individuals, the personal situations of every one of those individuals, office size and floor space, where in a building the office is located, and much, much more.

“A lot of firms are now talking about what they’re going to do,” Smith says. “They’re asking how they are going to start bringing people back into the office. As part of that discussion, they also need to figure out how we deal with people who say they don’t want to return, because they’re quite happy and feel safer working from home.

“It does really depend heavily on the individual circumstance of each staff member. If they have spent the past month or two trying to work at home, and they have young, school-aged kids, it might have been a nightmare, and they might be desperate to come back to the office. Others might miss the social interaction or the collaboration. You really do have to establish the individual circumstance of each person before developing a solution.”

“The most important fact to accept upfront is that there is no template. This is one of the rare problems in business that will not have a shared solution across any two companies.” David Smith FCPA, founder, Smithink

Such intelligence-gathering requires surveys and individual conversations, some of it by well-briefed line managers. However, that’s not the only ingredient required for success.

That information, Smith says, must be combined with the organisation’s requirements. For example, a business that manages vital infrastructure and that therefore can’t afford for several of its staff to be knocked down by a disease at the same time, might bring a “red team” and a “blue team” back to work on different days. That way, essential staff on each team never cross paths. A thorough, daily disinfection of all office surfaces further protects against contagion.

Does that solve all issues? Not even close, Smith says. What about teams who are far more productive when they are working together in the same area of an office, Smith asks.

How do you ensure they all return? What about individuals whose roles mean they should be fine to work from home, but who have proven to be unproductive outside the office environment? What if hot-desking, now an absolute no-no, was previously part of your work process, or you simply don’t have enough office space to ensure social distancing, or some staff are in high-risk groups? The potential complications are enormous.

When EY surveyed more than 6000 of its staff, it discovered that 43 per cent were comfortable to return to the office, but happy to wait. Another 20 per cent wanted to keep working from home, and 11 per cent wanted to return to the office as quickly as possible. The company has cancelled hot-desking and has asked those returning to work to book a specific desk during a trial period, which will see support staff and about 11 per cent of professionals coming back to the office.

It is this type of workforce research and testing that Smith recommends. With so many variables, research is the only way to develop a strategy that suits the very specific environment within a business’s workplace.

The virus that ate office space

One fascinating likely outcome from the COVID-19 crisis is the new use of office space, as well as the broad development of home office space. This is likely to have a long-term effect on values of commercial property and the design of residential property, believes Bernadette Smith CPA, Aspen Corporate partner.

“When I came into the industry, I set up a home office. I got a fax machine, a photocopier, a computer, etc.,” she says. “During this COVID-19 experience, I’ve been amazed by how many people didn’t have offices set up at home. But guess what? Now they do.

“Now, commercial space is changing. Offices will get smaller because people will be working from home a lot more often. The design and value of commercial space is being challenged.

“Residential design is changing, too. Houses and apartments will require designated offices, or office spaces. I can see that rolling out across residential. The next challenge will be data security from home, which is vital in our industry and in many others.”

Case study: Aspen Corporate

The plan of action for returning to the office must be built on adaptability and staff feedback on how they would like the business to evolve.

Aspen Corporate, an accountancy practice based in Perth, Western Australia, has had most staff working from home over the past few months, and skeleton staff in the office, but safely separated into individual offices. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the firm’s directors saw what was happening elsewhere and were able to plan their work-from-home strategy, including allowing staff to take computers and office chairs home, and sorting partners and staff into two teams, to ensure continuity should one group become infected.

The business’s partners, including Bernadette Smith CPA, who is also chairperson of CPA Australia’s WA Public Practice Committee, are now planning the return.

“We’re asking staff for feedback on what’s working well and what’s not working well, because as a business, we know we’ll have to evolve a little bit differently in the future,” she says.

“We’re already planning for that, because some of our staff actually worked very successfully from home.

“However, we’ve not only been asking staff about how we should be evolving into the future. We’re also speaking with our clients to find out what they found successful and what they’ve not. We’ve been having Zoom meetings and we have portals set up, but we have to work out what they liked and what they didn’t.”

When staff return to the office, Bernadette is keenly aware that they will have to hit the ground running. Rarely has there been a period in history when the knowledge of accountants and finance experts has been so heavily in demand, and she is preparing for this, too.

“Everybody who comes back will understandably want to catch up and share their experiences, but we need to maximise our time in the office for productivity, so we’ll also organise some sort of social event, within the parameters we can, to allow for this socialising to occur safely.”

She’s not sure yet how things will change, but she says the secret will be in the regularity and quality of the communication with all stakeholders.

Rhonda Brighton-Hall of mwah agrees, saying that the changes will likely be overwhelmingly positive, dragging our working lives out of the Dark Ages.

“Some businesses in the recent past, for example, have felt they can’t have a person with a disability in their workforce, because they need special adjustments and that’s going to be expensive, etc., but we’ve just proven we can all work remotely,”

“Flexibility has nothing to do with policy, and everything to do with leadership. I have no doubt that going out of this, really forward-thinking and interesting companies that understand humanity will create a space for people to do well.”