How HR is reimagining the office of the future

HR executives are getting used to strategizing on the flyand that includes when it comes to envisioning the office of the future.

With America’s continued high rate of coronavirus infections, as well as the inevitable long wait for a vaccine, a large-scale return to the office keeps being delayed. What’s more, many companies—seeing how newer technologies like Zoom have made it much easier to work from home and also needing cost-savings because of the virus-induced recession—are envisioning a future where most employees work from home most of the time. But after several months of lockdown, many workers are saying, in essence, “Not so fast.”

As early as May, nearly three-quarters of U.S. office workers polled in a nationwide survey by company-review website Glassdoor said they were eager to return to the office, mainly because of missing opportunities to either socialize or work more collaboratively with co-workers. That has placed pressure on people managers to plan for that eventuality while keeping their workforce safe. Many HR executives say the search for solutions has meant forging partnerships with leaders in IT or building management that didn’t exist before the pandemic.

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Alex Alonso

Alex Alonso, chief knowledge officer for the Society for Human Resource Management, says he believes the crisis and the need to rethink the workplace are also radically changing the role of the chief human resource officer, as CHROs worry less about right-sizing the company and more about how to make functions such as training succeed in a digital world and how to hold a scattered workforce together. “They have to focus on maintaining a culture as much as possible,” he says, even if most employees are currently working from home.

For smaller and mid-sized companies, the challenge of envisioning the future workspace is no less than at a large corporation. At Submittable, a 100-person tech company, Chief People Officer Asta So spent a chunk of her spring reworking floor plans for the firm’s Missoula, Mont., office and drawing up an alternating schedule so employees would not work so close together. She says she has researched to “see how many people we might have within a particular office or room and how far apart desks could be.”

The commercial real-estate giant Cushman and Wakefield—concerned, not surprisingly, about the push to shrink or eliminate traditional offices—has begun promulgating what it calls “the 6-foot office,” designed with social distancing in mind. That’s certainly in keeping with the short-term conversation about working with the coronavirus, but many are also thinking about a generally healthier office after the pandemic. New ideas include improved indoor air systems, using antimicrobial materials in new construction and even touchless elevator controls.

Asta So

SHRM’s Alonso said he believes the lingering trauma from the pandemic means more firms will station employee-assistance counselors or other mental-health professionals within the workplace, as part of rising concerns about how such rapid change is affecting workers emotionally. But Alonso also says he’s hearing more about innovative, income-producing ways to make use of suddenly available office space, including for day care, schools or learning centers as well as other more commercial uses.

Related: Thinking about reopening? 7 considerations for HR

At insurance giant Nationwide, the firm is likely to reap some cost savings by shuttering some of its offices, despite the cost of new technology and other tools or incentives to keep homebound workers connected, says Gale King, executive vice president and chief administrative officer. In the spring, Nationwide announced a new work-from-home strategy that would involve closing at least five U.S. office locations and focusing on four main facilities where thousands of so-called “hybrid” employees would report occasionally but not every day.

She says the strength of the established firm’s culture gives her confidence that the new hybrid model can work. “We were comfortable that our people are committed, whether working from home or office,” she says, “and that we wouldn’t lose talent.”

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