Return to office and the new normal of office work

Like a lot of people in Dublin, I work for a large multinational company, and since March I’ve been working from home full time.

As the COVID-19 restrictions are easing, there’s lots of discussion in my team about the return to the office. Some companies have told their staff they can work from home until the end of the year, and others are more keen to get their people back in the office quickly.

Some organisations are already forming plans to re-open as we reach the end of phase 2 of the easing of restrictions. The government hasn’t provided any fixed date when people who currently work from home will return to the office.

The advice to government document [PDF] from NPHET on the 18th June says:

All workers and businesses that can work remotely from home should continue to do so to the maximum extent possible. This should be continued at least for the coming months until there is greater clarity on the future progression of COVID-19 in Ireland and globally.

There’s no clear date when people are advised to return to their offices. The advice is to continue working from home indefinitely until we know more.

So all those companies that are planning to get their people back in the office in the next couple of months are potentially going against this advice.

What will it look like back in the office?

Even when we get back in the office, the workplace might look very different!

The kind of things you will expect to see are:

  • Restrictions on the number of people on site together. There might not be room to have everyone back in the office together and still maintain social distancing from each other. Teams might be asked to only attend for a couple of days a week, and continue to work from home the rest of the time, in order to limit the number of people in the office.
  • Redesigned desk layouts and working policies. Seating layouts may change to accommodate social distancing. Also clean desk policies, with the removal of all personal items, might be required to help with desk sanitation. And if different teams are using the same desks on different days, it’ll be much more like a hot desking arrangement where you might not keep your own desk.
  • Redesigned walkways. Offices may designate corridors and doorways as one-way in order to maintain social distancing. You might need to take a longer route around the office to get somewhere.
  • Off limits meeting rooms or reduced capacity. Some meeting rooms might be deemed too small to maintain distancing, and others will reduce capacity. Expect to see chairs removed from rooms, and occupancy limits posted outside.
  • Increased sanitisation schedules. Things will be cleaned and disinfected a lot more often. Common touch areas like door handles might have to be cleaned numerous times during the day. Desks and chairs might need to be sanitised at the end of the day if someone else it going to use them the next day.
  • Increased personal responsibility. You might not want to wash your hands a lot, or use hand sanitiser, or wear a face mask – but you might be required to do all of these things in the office to help safeguard your colleagues. You might also be asked to help with some of the sanitisation routine, by wiping down surfaces after you have touched them.
  • Not everyone will be there. Everyone’s personal circumstances are different, and there may be some colleagues that are unable to return to the office at all – perhaps because they have a medical condition that places them at risk, or perhaps they are a carer for an elderly or sick person.

These changes to our work environment might continue for quite a long time – perhaps even well into next year – and will potentially make the office a more hostile environment to work in.

There’ll be no more hanging around the coffee machine having the craic, or sitting with your friends on another team for lunch.

The new normal of working

People might need to come to terms with the fact that working from home is not something that will be over soon. Even if your office opens in the next few weeks, you might only be in the office for 1 or 2 days a week. And the rest of the time you’ll still be at home. In fact, your home office might become your default work location, and a commute to the office might become the exception.

Some organisations are also looking into making home working a more permanent change, even after COVID-19 has gone. They see that staff are just as productive at home as they were in the office, and that it’s much cheaper for them to keep their staff at home.

If staff only come into the office one day a week, they can reuse the same space for multiple teams, and as such save a fortune in leasing and running large offices.