COVID-19 lockdown week 8, working from home again and tuning in (is that what you do to a webinar?) to Workplace Trends: What will be the “new normal” for the workplace in 2021? with a panel of three world renowned industry speakers.
So as to declare my interest up front, one of the panel members was brainybirdz co-founder Kerstin Sailer. And when I first started to write this blog, only a few minutes after the webinar finished, I had it in my mind to summarise some of the insightful things she and the others had said. There were certainly plenty of thought-provoking nuggets, and I am sure a transcript or recording of the event will be available on the Workplace Trends website, but if you were looking for the definitive answers to the question on the “new normal” then it seems right now we don’t have them.
Having said that there were plenty of suggestions for ways of thinking about changes that could ensure physical distancing in the workplace. And there were many comments about the need to also remember the role of the office as a place for meaningful conversations. As Tim Oldman put it, “the conversations that happen 5 minutes before the meeting and the 10 minutes after the meeting are often more important than the meeting itself.” Arjun Kaicker, for example, talked about the Allen curve highlighting an exponential drop off in conversations as the physical distance between people increases past 8m, so to now think about the zone between 2m and 8m. Kerstin reminded us all that people have the workplaces they have, so there is a need to be realistic about what is possible, certainly in the short term. For example, the existing configuration may make it difficult to create one-way circulation systems. There was talk of screens between desks, desk sharing on different days between two people rather than wholesale hotdesking, the likely financial impossibility of providing more space for the same number of people. Some solutions to think about, but also a recognition of the many constraints that organisations face as they think about re-jigging their office space.
It doesn’t need me to tell you that we are in a time of great uncertainty, and that knowledge and insight about the pandemic and how it effects the way we live is unfolding almost hourly. And the discussion that I heard this afternoon showed this exactly to be the case. So, as Kerstin rightly said,
“If we come back and do this webinar in two weeks’ time, we will be saying different things to what we are saying now.”
This is not a piece of self-criticism, that, somehow, we cannot adequately gaze into our crystal ball, it is an admission of the reality of the situation, and what I think it tells us is this. We have been thrust unwillingly into a massive experiment for working differently and we have already adapted. Now we need to take time and not rush to make sweeping statements about the end of the workplace as we know it. Indeed, fellow panellist, Tim Oldman, referred to his worry about the amount of pointless speculation at this stage about the future when there is so little data to tell us what the impact of working from home really is. So this is the time to continually rethink, plan and test how the workplace can best be adapted from now on: not to fixate on what is the new desirable fixed end state, and not to promise our staff that everything will be right straight away. As COVID safe as possible yes, but an evolving working environment that we as human beings can thrive in together again.