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Redrawing the Office Blueprint

Let's start defining the "new normal", so that we can all emerge stronger in the post-pandemic world.

2020 has been quite the year. Who would have thought that face masks would become an accessory. Or that sports stadiums would be desolate. Or, that the backyard would become the new vacation spot! Like I said, quite the year….and, it doesn’t look like things are going to change anytime soon.

A lot of us would like to fast forward to 2021, with hopes of the pandemic having died down and the world returning to “normal”. However, the harsh reality is that “normal” will likely never be the same. Life and work, even after a vaccine, will almost certainly never return to their previous states.

Organizations will have to help define what the “new normal” looks like for their business, thinking about offices of the future, how to engage the workforce in new ways, and how to not only sustain operations, but also drive business forward in a post-pandemic world.

Offices of the Future

It’s clear that the pandemic is shifting the workplace physically, structurally, and emotionally. The post-pandemic world will be bursting with new outlooks, expectations, and concerns around the physical surroundings in which we live, learn, and work. As a result, organizations will need to think about their plans as they relate to office space design, workforce processes, and ways to foster collaboration.

Physically, organizations will be able to drastically decrease their office space, but will have to invest in structural changes to the spaces that remain. If everyone came back to work today, design changes such as work station partitions, touchless elevator controls, and better air filtration, would become prominent and even expected by employees to ensure they feel comfortable, safe, and confident returning to work. While some of these changes may remain even after a vaccine, the real benefit for people to come back to work will be collaboration, and the office must foster this.

Similarly, workforce processes will evolve. The question no longer seems to be whether or not a job can be done remotely, but rather how that job can best be performed in a remote setting. While not as essential as doctors and nurses, organizations across the globe have experienced the realization that they provide essential services, no matter if everyone is working from home or not! At Northern Trust, for example, we found very quickly that our increased adoption of new technologies and digitization enhancements enabled us to adapt to the emerging needs of our clients and employees quickly and shift into a new business as usual state. The flexibility offered by new technologies will change work from home policies and perceptions as well as employees’ expectations for time spent physically in the office.

With process changes of this magnitude, it’s important for organizations to think about their impact on the emotional well-being of employees. Equally, if not more important than procedural and physical changes to the workplace, is something that’s intangible: culture. It’s paramount for us to recognize that, amidst all of this rapid and evolving change around us, the one constant in the mix is us, as humans. While the schematics and blueprints of how we operate our businesses will be redrawn, they will only work if the people within them remain motivated, connected, and engaged with the vision and mission of the organization.

Culture is and always should be at the heart of what we do. Decreased face-to-face interaction will test and challenge the strength of our cultures. Employee engagement and the feeling of unity are without a doubt more challenging to achieve when we are all separated. Organizations must find ways to retain their core cultural values as they define the “new normal”.

So how do organizations ensure that culture is not lost as a result of physical and structural changes to our offices and workplace processes? I don’t have all of the answers, but I believe that a critical component includes an enhanced focus on your workforce and leadership, and a combination of work from home and in-person collaboration will be the wave of the future.

The Workforce

For employees to perform at their highest levels and to be dedicated to the collective success of the organization, they must not only care about the work they do, but also whom they do it for. This requires something deeper and more meaningful than salary increases, bonuses, and workshops. It requires developing a sense of trust and meaningful interactions. I’ve said this before and I will say it again; employees don’t leave organizations, they leave managers. It is the manager’s job to instill this trust and foster connectivity with his or her teams. This is what enables cultures to thrive. Just as we must keep our operations going, we must also keep our cultures going by finding new ways to build and develop interpersonal relationships. Today’s technology can assist by providing options to connect face to face, even if we can’t be in the same room, but ultimately, it’s up to all of us to adopt and adapt to leverage those capabilities to find new ways to build and maintain relationships.

It’s going to take time to adjust and not everything we try will deliver the desired results, but I encourage organizations to start defining the “new normal” and what it will look like, so that we can all emerge stronger in the post-pandemic world.

Read more of Pete's blogs on Face Value on Medium.

Peter B. Cherecwich

President of Asset Servicing
Pete is an Executive Vice President and a member of Northern Trust’s Management Group in Chicago. Pete currently serves as the President of Northern Trust Asset Servicing.

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