Scenario planning for the Workplace of the Future

Ingrid Burke

Ingrid Burke

Business Analyst, IT Program & Project Manager, Business Transformation Specialist

Thanks to covid, the workplace of the future may be accelerated to the workplace of 2021. It’s certainly a hot topic right now. How should businesses best normalise working, now that blanket lockdowns are lifted? Local lockdowns will still unpredictably arise and offices are not deemed safe for operation at designed capacity (let alone what to do about the risks of commuting by public transport). I think that 3 scenarios are worth exploring:

  1. Back to how it was — with sanitiser
  2. WFH (working from home) for all is the new normal
  3. Blended working — a mix of WFH and office or hub based work

New Workplace Scenarios, 4 box model, costs and benefits

New Workplace Scenarios, costs and benefits

Let’s explore these:

Scenario 1: Back to how it was — with sanitiser

Human nature is likely to drive a strong pull towards “let’s just get back to how it was”. There is a human inertia towards change. Back to how it was is easier than changing, especially since we’re not really sure what the practical alternative looks like (I think we all know that it doesn’t look like squeezing into the box room with the dog and 3 kids). Many of us are missing the social interactions that come from being in an office; and not every manager has been given the skills and support themselves to lead remote teams confidently.

However, right now, we also can’t just go back to how it was. Physical distancing rules are still being imposed by Governments and that means that we simply cannot operate offices at their previously designed capacity. A proportion of our working population will have to continue shielding for an indefinite period. And that’s before we consider the possible legal safeguarding implications of forcing people to come back into the office if they don’t feel that that is safe. Getting people to sign disclaimers (under duress) might be a sinister Orwellian option in this scenario but that seems to me like the best way to a future class action lawsuit.

A more positive vision in this scenario would be a return with full employee consultation on top of practical safety measures. However, that still doesn’t address the office capacity under physical distancing rules.

Either way, there will end up being a group of employees who feel coerced in the situation and that is not a return to the past, it is a return to a worse version of the past. Focus on Employee Experience was trending pre-covid and alienating a whole section of your workforce through lack of choices does not play well into that trend. Add in the physical distancing mandates and the return to the office is unlikely to be quite as fun, relaxed and spontaneous as we fondly remember.

The big question in this scenario is when will the vaccine come? Because if the vaccine comes next month, then by Christmas we really could go back to exactly how it was before. But if the vaccine is still 12 months away then that is too long to be operating at half measures in limbo. The business questions in this scenario might be: how long are we willing to wait for a vaccine; how damaging is the current situation of making do; and is this actually an opportunity to radically re-think our business model?

Scenario 2: WFH for all is the new normal

If everyone did it then this is a very extreme scenario with wide ranging social consequences. If WFH for absolutely everybody were to be the new normal then I predict that we would also see new legislation around everything from ensuring that home offices meet current workplace standards for layout and equipment, to business taxation calculated on home offices (some of which already exists). The workforce (and possibly also Government) would not accept that companies pocket the cash from giving up commercial leases, whilst forcing the workers to pay out for their own home offices. Cash released from commercial leases would be spent on setting up home offices for all to specified standards.

In a very extreme version of this scenario, companies would fund workers an extra room in the house to use as an Enterprise Standard personal office. This scenario should not be seen by companies as a way to a quick cash windfall, but rather as a cost neutral option — cash released from office leases will be spent on setting staff up with Enterprise standard home offices with high ergonomics and high quality IT. The Government might introduce a new business levy, to fund and accelerate it’s fibre for all broadband ambitions.

Socially, the youngest and the most deprived are the two groups least likely to have suitable home office space, therefore this scenario is also likely to widen social inequality. It is, however, an inclusive scenario for shielders.

Even if we resolve the matter of the appropriate workspace, we are still left with the very significant problem of social isolation. Teams can be remote first and relationships can be built by virtual means, this has been proven many times over. But sooner or later, people have a social need to meet up. Those who don’t have a social need to meet up with co-workers have generally already built their social and support networks. But for many business professionals, work does form a large and important part of their social fabric. If the future is without offices then society will fundamentally have to change, as a vast number of people look for a new way to get their “social fix”. There are social questions in this scenario for governments; as well as business questions around what the consequences of this decision are: on staff productivity, on well being, and on retention.

It should be said that WFH could be the right solution for some businesses or some teams. A sales team, for example, might have been mostly remote working already, due to being on the road. Then this would be an opportunity to get the team together and to decide whether presence is needed in the office at all and, if not, how to make sure that the team members have all the best support and tools they need.

In another example, I know of a small business which has already acted decisively to give up the office lease and move everybody to home working permanently. This small business is a shining example of how to make this change really well: all staff were actively consulted and engaged in the decision — all were in unanimous agreement; their home offices were assessed; and the business set them all up with home office equipment that would be the pride of a much larger business. Finally, they made sure that they also implemented Enterprise Grade security. The boss knew the staff well enough to be fairly certain that all would be enthusiastic about the idea. However, it would have only needed one person in the team to not be able to work from home and the decision would get a whole lot more complicated.

I’ve painted some extremes in the scenario of every business following this model. In reality, any one, individual, business is only making the decision for itself. There could be some benefits. Clarity to go forward and focus on the business, rather than reacting to more covid induced changes as they arise. The opportunity to harness the full potential of virtual teamworking and collaboration by investing in technology and skills. The opportunity to access a wider talent pool. But there could also be downsides. An impact on mental health and wellbeing of employees from social isolation and an impact on physical health if home offices are not ergonomically correct. Some social groups will see a WFH company as a more attractive employer — others as a less attractive employer. Some companies are experimenting by declaring WFH until dates in 2021. The UK Government is already “fighting back”.

Scenario 3: Blended working

Unless a vaccine is proven before the end of 2020, then my prediction is that most businesses will start working on solutions to scenario 3. Many businesses already are. Scenario 3 is hugely exciting because it could be a better version of what we had before, certainly regarding the Employee Experience factor. Scenario 3 accommodates the changing requirements around physical distancing but it is so much more.

The best version of scenario 3 is a win-win for both the business and the employees. Team get togethers are scheduled around business needs and maximum efficiency, creativity, etc, whilst a strong element of remote work remains in place, which will be a gain for many employees. It is likely to be a 2/3 kind of model — 2 days in the office and 3 days WFH (or vice versa). The days in the office are likely to be scheduled around the business requirements for the team. In the best version of this scenario, shielders are fully WFH and fully included in the team, with extra care for their mental health; staff who cannot work from home will have the option to work full time from a sanitised office, in order to avoid lack of a suitable home office becoming a new discriminator.

To get the best version of Blended working, the solution won’t just be thrown together, but will be tackled with thought, analysis, employee consultation and planning — a considered and structured transformational change programme. Of the three scenarios, blended working will be the most expensive to implement because it involves retaining some form of office space, together with setting people up correctly for home working. However, blended working also has the most potential for delivering a superior employee experience, which will have a positive effect on productivity, attraction and retention.

Scenario 3 results from a business deciding against scenarios 1 and 2; or by seeing scenario 3 as an opportunity for accelerating the “next way of working” for employers of choice.

So what next?

All 3 scenarios are plausible, although scenario 1 requires additional office space otherwise it defaults to scenario 3 under physical distancing rules. All are, in their own way, challenging. All of them are possible to implement with the right processes, the right technology and supported by appropriate change management. The purpose of this article is not to cover implementation but to get you thinking about the scenarios, thinking about consequences and implications and then making the right, informed decision for your business — hopefully in consultation with your staff.