Your post-pandemic office life: 4 predictions

Almost a year in, remote work has inexorably changed the traditional 9-to-5 office model. Here are some welcome shifts we expect to see going forward
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The memory almost seems like a fever dream.

There was a little room I went to almost every day of the work week, high in a tower in the center of Manhattan. Some days I’d have the door closed almost all day as I immersed myself in an endless series of phone calls; other days I’d leave the door open and visitors from around the world or down the hall would wander in and out all day.

To paraphrase the film "Full Metal Jacket," there were many like it – but this was mine.

My office.

Depending on how vaccine distribution goes, I’ll probably get back there sometime this year. Not at the same cadence, mind you – as a working mom, losing my commute has been a priceless gift – but I’ll be back in sometimes.

I won’t be using my office in quite the same way, though. And I’m betting other folks won’t either. Here are four ways I predict the purpose of the office will change post-pandemic:

1. Less isolation zone or meeting room, more unstructured gathering space

In-office days, for many folks, used to follow a demanding drumbeat: Phone call. Phone call. Meeting. Meeting. Phone call. Rinse and repeat.

Calendars can’t be back-to-back if you want to resume informal "watercooler chats."

In sharp contrast, we’re hearing across organizations that once it’s safe to gather in offices again, employees, particularly at the leadership level, are putting a premium on informal collaboration/innovation gatherings – and that will become the purpose of being in-office, first and foremost.

This means rethinking space – and indeed, many organizations are redesigning physical offices for better collaboration – but also time, as calendars can’t be back-to-back if you want to resume informal “watercooler chats.”

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2. Less clock-punching, more time optimization

Organizations have been talking about flexible work since time immemorial – but irritatingly, cultures of “9-to-5” face time (heavy quotes there – more like “7-to-7” or worse at some organizations) have stubbornly persisted.

Happily, as organizations scramble to get workers now acclimated to working from home back into the office, managers are much more willing to budge on the particulars of when folks show up and when they leave. Offices can be a place you’re at when you need to be there – and not a place you have to fight rush hour (or frantically rush out of to make it home for kiddie bedtime.)

As organizations scramble to get workers back into the office, managers are more willing to budge on the particulars of when folks show up and when they leave.

3. Less home away from home, more landing pad

Considering the first two changes – toward a more collaborative and less time-bound use of the office – a third change is pretty natural: no longer treating the office like a second home. Is a family photo or two (or 12) still in order? Of course. A drawer with some shoes? For sure, those sidewalks aren’t getting any softer. But will folks need the elaborate setups they may have had historically? Likely not. And more good news: If you’re working from home more often, your home is a safe space to cook all that fish you’ve been buying – an activity that will remain an office taboo in any state of the world!

4. Less phone booth, more broadcasting studio

We’ll all come back to the office changed people. And one of those changes is that we’ve embraced video calls, and gotten better at doing them. All those microphones, headsets, and ring lights? Expect to see them in the office. And expect a lot more of the “backdrop curation” – spurred by the Room Raters of the world – that we’ve all done at home.

One interesting variable in the equation: Will all these efforts be DIY by individual employees, or will organizations consciously reshape working spaces to become more video-friendly?

All these changes raise a fundamental question: What will our relationship with the office be when organizations return en masse? Will we lope into its waiting arms like the pets at the end of "The Incredible Journey"? Or trudge in reluctantly like kids called home for supper?

Reactions will vary wildly by person, organization, and likely, day to day. But we have a critical opportunity to renegotiate this critical relationship – and it’s worth being thoughtful, as individuals and collectively as organizations, about what we want from the office going forward.

[ Will your organization thrive in 2021? Learn the four priorities top CIOs are focusing on now. Download the HBR Analytic Services report: IT Leadership in the Next Normal. ]

Melissa Swift leads Korn Ferry’s Digital Transformation Advisory for North America and Global Accounts.

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