Author: TL McMinn
The prospect of going back to in-office work after almost a year and a half in lockdown is probably bringing up concerns about what everyday life will look like now. This is not dissimilar to what children may be experiencing in the next coming weeks, regarding going back to school, in-person, assuming they do get to go back. Both groups are likely asking questions like: what will the physical space look like and how will your daily life be different moving forward? What health precautions have been put in place, and what are the expectations that should be followed? In an ideal world, employers are communicating any and all changes that are happening, but not everyone is so lucky.
Office landscapes have changed throughout the centuries, and with the world beginning to re-open, they will probably have to change once again. Employers have a decision to make on whether to continue to work remotely, allow hybrid work environments, or mandate in-office work. While many employers may prefer strictly in-office work, that may not be the best solution for everyone.
Thinking about the way we work is not the only consideration that needs to be reflected on; we may need to reconsider how we define and think about “space” within reference to the workplace entirely. If we were to redefine the word “space” – what might be considered?
First item that comes to mind is the literal physical space in which we work. How will that look moving forward?
First, cleanliness. What should have been a priority to keep employees safe, are now mandated in many places. Consider the layout of your office: are there cubicles placed closely together? Or have you adopted a more “open concept” type of atmosphere? Both types of spaces have their pros and cons when it comes to living in today’s world; cubicles provide privacy and almost built in social distancing measures. However, you also need to take into consideration the type of material they are made from – many are fabric based which are harder to clean and can trap in germs more readily. Open concepts also provide social distancing measures but not necessarily the protection one might want or need, unless you have installed plexiglass throughout the office to separate tables. Going above and beyond what is expected of mandated safety considerations communicates to employees that you care about their wellbeing and is an investment in both the physical and emotional health of your teams. There are small steps to take that can help keep your team safe: like increased airflow, flexible break times, switching furniture to materials that are easy to clean, and having masks available for those that forget.
Rising into popularity in the 1990s, “Agile and Activity Based Working” (ABW) and “hot desking” may no longer be viable options for your office as it may be more difficult to follow necessary health guidelines provided by various health agencies, like physical distancing and disinfection. Because these types of office layouts are predicated on fluidity – you work where you want, when you want – keeping up with safety measures may prove difficult. Although safety measures such as plexiglass barriers are not mandatory, many may feel more comfortable coming back to work with them in place.
While creating a safe physical space is still doable, employees may feel even more anxious about going back to work. At Lunaria, we are concerned with the people, their feelings of inclusion, and their sense of belonging. When implementing new procedures or policies ask yourself: do these changes align with the physical accessibility standards I want to meet? Do my changes make sense now and will they continue to make sense later? Do these match the expectations I set for my employees? With what I know about how my team likes to work, do these changes meet those expectations?
Emotional and Mental Space:
The second that comes to mind is emotional and/or mental space, which can be looked at as the emotions someone feels when entering and being in a space. This is something that may be difficult to think about as it can be a bit more abstracte, but is just as important as all the physical health precautions that have been put in place. But how do you create a safe emotional/mental space? What would this include?
One thing we recommend is communicating in-person work expectations with employees. List any and all new expectations that should be taken into consideration, this might include where you might have to wear a mask or what the cleaning schedule is going to look like. This is also a good place to talk about hybrid work expectations – can you work from home 2-3 days a week versus needing to be there in-person everyday? Ideally, more workplaces will be amenable to a hybrid work system and remember that this may even just be for the first little while as everyone gets used to going out to work everyday again.
Another important aspect to consider is talking with colleagues before you get back into the office about how they are feeling about everything; people had different experiences in the pandemic, and while we might be moving forward at work, some people are still dealing with the aftermath, or are still in the middle of it, in terms of dealing with family considerations, and lifestyle impacts. There may be some individuals that are ready for in-person work, but are unsure how to respond to the more social aspect of the job like after work gatherings or even just the lunch room – is there a certain amount of people that are allowed in lunch rooms? Can you eat at your workspace if you feel uncomfortable? Who is going to be ensuring the rules are upheld? Try posing an open discussion to evaluate how everyone is feeling about going back to in-person work, or create an anonymous survey where workers can also pose questions without having their name tied to it.
There will also be people that go back thinking they are ready only to discover a week or so in that they aren’t – this needs to be okay. Employees need to know that it is okay to take a step back and to take care of themselves; self-care has been prioritized over this past year, and it needs to continue to be prioritized.
Overall, communication is the key to a successful return to in-person work. Just as communication was essential regarding getting used to remote work, it will be just as vital for going back to in-person work. And you need to remember, there were anxieties about working from home as well.
Remember: the adjustment period is going to be different for everyone. Some will go right back to how it used to be, and others will need more time. The key to going back to in-person work is flexibility and patience.
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