Standardization, uniformity, and regularity have characterized the design of workplaces. There was no place for emotions at the workplace. The new workplace designs have to be spaces that nurture creativity, inspire, and energize. They have to build space for emotions.
Social distance will upend power distance
Before we go back to the workplace we must ask, “Why do we need to go anywhere to work?” For the first quarter of 2020, the entire world learned how to work, learn, and celebrate without leaving home.
In a connected world, a workplace is just a notion. One Wi-Fi hotspot and a mobile phone can create workplaces anywhere. Anywhere any time is how we have to start thinking of workplaces. The physical office space will soon learn to exist with virtual office space the way e-books co-exist with paperbacks.
Before the pandemic, employers worried about who would have the privilege to work from home. The biggest challenge now is about deciding who can work from the office.
Office spaces will have to be thought of like an aircraft. Even the economy section will have no middle seats just like the business class. Will it create a less hierarchical workplace? What will be the new signaling device of the rich and powerful? Tech companies are letting employees work from home for the entire year. Will having an office to go to, become the new perk? Will offices issue monogrammed, designer masks to reward high performing employees?
The coffee machine and the cafeteria will raise the alarm. It may take less time to drive from home to the office, but the queues will begin after that. Waiting to get screened and tested every day and climbing stairs will be the new normal. Some offices have already marked elaborate one-way walkways on each floor to maintain social distance. What happens if the CEO decides to cut across the floor instead? Every cough and sneeze will be the subject of speculation and gossip. We have to wait to see how the new workplace gets built.
A hygienic workplace will build trust
Workplace design will become an important agenda in boardrooms. Ensuring the workplace and the workforce are safe for everyone, every day is going to raise new challenges. How to screen, test and respond to every employee and visitor every day will have to be worked out. Under what circumstances can a boss call for a meeting in the office building will have to be agreed upon.
Many offices take photos and collect mobile numbers of visitors (which often end up in unwanted hands). Add to this the health data and you have a database that is every hacker’s dream. Data collection and privacy norms will have to be agreed upon in workplaces. Would employees need to declare the health conditions of their domestic partners and the people they share their home with? Can the employer insist on attendance at an office conference or all-hands briefing? In the past, Yahoo and IBM called back several remote workers to be in the office. How would employees respond to such a measure today?
When Twitter announced that its employees need not come back to office, it made headlines. Google and Facebook employees have their work from home options limited to the end of the year. Will the office buildings in the heart of town become a relic? Will satellite offices come up in locations where the employees are clustered? Or will the employers insist that workplace team members stay close enough to each other and use meeting spaces everyone agrees upon?
Questions we have never asked before
As office leases expire, the leadership teams will discuss whether to let people continue to work from remote locations. Every choice will have its second-order effects. If the office is in Mumbai, and the employee now chooses to operate out of tier 3 or tier 4 city, would the person’s salary get reduced to reflect the lower cost of living? Should the employer incentivize employees to stay in clusters near the office or would that increase the risk? Would women and people with disabilities or transgender find remote work more inclusive?
Communication norms in the workplace will be challenged. Humans are used to observing non-verbal signals like smiles and frowns to understand the other’s responses. Masks will take away a lot of these cues. Will remote work lower the level of office politics or will your digitally savvy colleague still have an edge over the digitally naïve? The organizational culture is formed through the written and unwritten rules of the workplace. In case of a distributed workforce, new approaches to culture building would need to be devised.
Debates about the health conditions of the resort staff will bring teams closer together than any team-building offsite ever has. Managers will have to rely on options other than team-building exercises because social distancing norms will render most of them obsolete.
Is this just a state of confusion we will live with until the vaccine is discovered? Will access to the vaccine be the new perk of the workplace?
The unspoken emotions in the workplace
When employees come back to the workplace, we have to keep in mind that this is not the workplace that we left when we hardly said goodbye as we picked up a laptop and went home. During the lockdown, the world changed. The employees changed and so did the workplace. The pandemic made us look at death in the eye. Someone had described 80s looking at a tiger in the eye. Humans understand their mortality and helplessness.
From the billionaire to the migrant labor walking back home, three feelings were universally experienced – uncertainty, mortality, and loneliness. We were uncertain about our jobs, our future and worried if we would die alone, unloved and isolated from our loved ones. Imaginary scenarios of being left without any income and with a mountain of unsettled debts crossed every human’s mind. When a loved one noticed our melancholy, we made up an excuse to get ourselves a glass of water and wiped away a tear.
We have always been told that the workplace is not a canvas for emotions. It is a place for only rational thoughts and actions. For once, we need the psychological safety of being able to be strong enough to cry and wash away the dust of the old workplace. We build our greatest strengths as we embrace and acknowledge the three emotions of uncertainty mortality and loneliness. There may be social distance at work, but let that not come in the way of our emotional closeness.