COVID's great impact on work
Social distancing's greatest impact on everyday life has possibly been the work dynamic change in virtually all companies, a process that has demystified the so-called "home office." As companies have been forced to accommodate to our new virtual reality, I begin to wonder how businesses' operations will change after this pandemic has passed.
We have now seen that distance working is completely feasible. In fact, a Gartner survey has revealed that 74% of CFOs are planning to adopt permanent remote positions for at least some portion of their workforce after the resolution of the COVID-19 crisis. However, our current situation has highlighted something else: our need for face-to-face interaction. More than 50% of respondents in a Gensler survey stated socialising with colleagues as their primary reason for wanting to return to the workplace. Therefore, when considering permanent shifts to work formats, we must not only study their practical and financial aspects but also their social and emotional ones. As the American futurist Brian Solis stated, "digital transformation is not about digital, it is about humans".
There is currently no shortage of research on people's experience in working from home (Harvard Business School, Valoir, IBM, to name a few); their diverging results point to the same fact: opinion is relative. No matter the industry or size, there are always those who now prefer to work from home and those who have not adapted to it and are anxiously waiting to return to their workplaces. Younger generations have voiced a particularly strong desire to get back to company offices. One Linkedin study, accordingly, has just pointed out that while many people feel more stressed working from home, some have also increased productivity.
How to find a balance
So the question now seems to be how companies can find the balance between home and office environments while maintaining the relationships between their collaborators.
An innovative example has been Equinix's "gupshups" initiative, in which the company creates virtual water coolers through Zoom where employees can check-in for casual conversations. This virtual hangout spot brings forth two reflections.
Firstly, let's tackle the relationship between company culture and the workplace. Part of working in a company is being involved in that company's culture. The question is, do we need to be in the same physical environment for that to happen? Are offices a factor of culture development or are they just a catalyst? The experience of walking into a Google office is certainly different than that of walking into a traditional bank, so how will these differences translate virtually? Now faced with having to spend more time at home and less time in offices, we are led to question not only our relationship with work but also our relationship with our jobs. We have to reconsider whether a company's culture still holds the same weight in our desire to work there, and how to connect with the people who work with us. The bottom line is: how will our priorities shift?
Pondering at how firms balance the practicality of distance working with the needs and benefits of physical interactions leads us to our second reflection. The digital transformation we have undergone so far has been delimited by our current technology. This extraordinary situation might be the extra push that accelerates surpassing our current limitations. If we think about it, there haven't been any disruptive developments to video calling since the creation of Skype back in 2003. Sure, today we have better platforms and more tools, but in essence, we are still limited to a 2-D image captured by our computer cameras. With a higher number of people working from home, the demand for new technologies that overcome its downsides increases. Thus, technology might emerge as the enabling factor in translating interpersonal relationships to a home office scenario, leading to innovative solutions like the virtual water coolers.
What lies in the future?
Great uncertainty surrounds the future, making it impossible to state exactly what will happen. These questions don't seem to have precise answers, and we will have to piece them together as we go along. This crisis has undeniably disrupted many standards and accelerated many changes, and the current trend for workplaces seems to be a hybrid model between offices and homes. Some companies are even shifting the whole idea of offices to conceptual environments to receive clients or have collaborative work rather than be the place where employees sit and work integrally.
Ultimately, leaders must understand what generates values to their employees, be that face-to-face or digital, and this will remain unchanged. Given that we diverge as individuals, one thing is clear: those who will thrive the most will be the ones able to balance their employee's specific needs with the company's objectives, adapting and flexibilizing.