Covid-19 Part VI: The Post-Pandemic Workforce

I write this having just completed my third successive day working in the office.  The last time I did that was week commencing 16th March 2020!  It all seems very different, yet familiar.  I don’t have a dedicated desk, but apart from all the COVID measures the office is identical and George is still a reassuring welcome on the reception desk.

It’s so energizing to hear the hum of office chat, however I think there is a much bigger issue we need to consider.

Much has been said and written about what the post-pandemic workplace will look like (see our own previous blogs) and we all know that:

  • WFH is here to stay
  • Blended workplace strategies will be adopted by almost every organisation in the western world
  • Work practices will change – even Goldman Sachs introduced a “Saturday (off) rule”
  • Physical distancing at work will be ‘de rigueur’
  • Desk booking will be the norm
  • Meetings (either formal or informal) will probably become one of the main functions of the office
  • Working from anywhere, at any time, using any device, is now the norm
  • H&S protocols will dominate every return-to-work strategy.

“The office is dead” advocates had dominated the headlines, now it’s the turn of the “return to the workplace” proponents to balance the argument. 

Whilst many have enjoyed spending more time with their family and a healthier work/life balance, a significant number have had to cope with a prolonged period of isolation and self-imposed quarantine. For them, the return to the workplace might not be as straightforward as one might think.

Think of how people react after a period in prison. On ‘freedom-day’, some run joyfully into the arms of friends and family, whilst a small number emerge traumatized and feeling vulnerable.

History should prepare us for what is to come. After the 2003 SARS pandemic, 40% of people developed PTSD and that condition persisted for over a year in over 80% of sufferers.  Will it be any different after this third lockdown? The media’s bombardment of depressing Covid statistics has had a significant impact on the nation’s mental wellbeing.  Indeed, a recent Gallup poll into mental health and emotional wellbeing concluded that it is at its lowest since 2001.

So, for those “return to the workplace” advocates, remember that planning is not just about how we arrange our desks, or how we dress our collaborative zones.

We have to make mental health an active part of the lexicon of the post pandemic leadership brief – not something delegated to the HR team or the Chief People Officer, in a gesture of virtue signaling.

How should we plan our post pandemic workplace - to accommodate employers’ occupational requirements, as well as employees’ psychological and emotional needs?

Of course, our post-pandemic planning will reflect the inevitable structural occupational changes in the workplace, however, decision makers must also consider their employees’ psychological and emotional triggers – after all, a happy workforce is a productive workforce.

So, before you sign off on any new refurbishment or fit-out plans, consider the following:

  1. Biophilic design: incorporating nature in the workplace is one of the most powerful therapeutic aids at your disposal:
    • Designing-in indoor plants, not just treating them as ornaments
    • Using natural materials such as wood and stone as an antidote for white melamine/metal furniture
    • Maximising employees’ access to natural daylight – placing desks next to windows and using glass partitions to allow light to enter deep into our workspace.
  2. Lighting: consider using the most contemporary lighting systems – designed to align with our natural circadian rhythms. The benefits of changing the intensity, colour and stimulus tuning throughout the day are logical. Compare this with the stark mono light emitted by conventional strip lights
  3. Floor to ceiling heights:  as you plan your new layout, consider varying the height. Create multiple pathways through an office to soften the visual and psychological impact of the ‘box approach’ to space planning
  4. Noise management: even in a pre-pandemic world, ambient office noise caused irritation to some and was stressful for others. After a year of WFH, it is likely to be a greater distraction and could even cause elevated stress levels in some. Therefore, it becomes critical to consider using more noise absorbent materials such as soft furnishing and carpets.  Physical distancing at work will also help – however annoying ring tones and bellowing (phone) conversations will, I fear, still be difficult to escape!
  5. Zone planning: it is as important to design-in quiet/meditative zones as it is to plan areas which encourage communal activity. The days of a mono-spatial open floor plate might be behind us
  6. Minimising workplace transmission: workplace Covid transmission will continue to be a major concern. It therefore makes sense for landlords and occupiers to work together and adopt a (joint) testing strategy to reduce the risk of an outbreak occurring in the workplace.

This could comprise a hub-and-spoke or an onsite laboratory PCR testing regime, or even the adoption of a twice-weekly Lateral Flow Test protocol. We have to accept that Covid is an ever-evolving virus and we have to learn to live with it.

There are a whole host of other factors to consider and this is by no way a prescriptive list.

Finally, as we welcome everyone back to the workplace, do remember that lockdown could have impacted colleagues in ways you would not have anticipated.

Marrying commercial/occupational requirements with meeting colleagues’ emotional and psychological post-lockdown needs will require sensitive juggling. For example, a hot-desking world, where we no longer have a space in the office to call our own, could create a sense of alienation which would impact organisations’ team building ambitions.   

Who knows, we might end up being as lonely in a workplace full of hot desks and meeting/collaboration zones, as we were WFH.

The vaccination programme has prepared most of us physically for the ‘big return’, but it will be the welcoming smile of all those ‘Georges’ who will minimise the incidences of PTSD and effect a successful psychological return. 

We homo sapiens are social animals who work best in a herd and the new workplace will need to accommodate the full gambit of colleagues’ emotions, or we will have learnt nothing from the last SARS pandemic.

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Richard Clarke
Richard Clarke 19 April 2021

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