What going back to work in an office will be like after lockdown

Social distancing and masks may become commonplace in offices when coronavirus lockdowns ease.

Miodrag Ignjatovic | Getty Images

What will it be like to go back to the office when countries start to loosen their lockdowns?

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Tuomas Peltoniemi was used to traveling to China, Japan and Australia for up to 100 days a year in his role as executive vice-president and managing director for the Asia-Pacific region at ad agency R/GA. But since lockdowns started during the Lunar New Year in January, he’s been based in his family home in Singapore.

And since March, when R/GA’s Shanghai office re-opened (complete with temperature checks, hand sanitizer, masks and extra cleaning), Peltoniemi has been devising plans for how some of the company’s other employees can go back to their regular workplaces for when shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted.

“I’m looking at it more from a perspective of, you know, what is truly and genuinely the role of the office space? … What are the expectations from people from working from an office space and working from wherever they choose to work from? … This return to (a) new normal, if you want to call it that, is not a linear, absolute date,” Peltoniemi told CNBC by phone.

When reopening in Shanghai, R/GA was flexible with how staff chose to go back, given that some of them had returned to family homes elsewhere in China or overseas for the New Year celebrations and may have felt uneasy about traveling. “A lot of the issues don’t so much come from the virus itself, it comes from the fear and uncertainty. Especially in Shanghai, there was no precedent for it,” Peltoniemi stated.

Research from jobs website Totaljobs suggests that, in the U.K. at least, people are keen to get back to their workplaces, with 54% wanting to do so by the end of June. The survey of nearly 7,000 people was conducted online between May 12 to May 15.

Masked meetings

Masks have been mandated by some governments for people on public transport, but don’t expect to see people wearing them in the workplace long term, says Sean McEvoy, a director at interior fit-out contractor Portview.

“It’s not a natural thing for us to run around with masks and gloves … the solution has to be in the space,” he told CNBC by phone.

Businesses may run in shifts, or only have people come to their workplace three days a week. Perspex screens might divide desks and boardroom tables might make way for socially-distanced podiums, McEvoy suggested.

A computer-generated image from interiors contractor Portview shows how office space may be segregated as people go back to the workplace after the coronavirus lockdowns are eased.

Portview

For Leo Curtis, a product marketing manager at Lenovo in Beijing, returning to the office in March felt “refreshing.”

“When I first went back, I was hesitant, but it is a nice thing to have a collective place to see your colleagues and have a face to face — mask to mask — meeting on some things,” he told CNBC by email.

To manage childcare, Curtis is now working from home much more than before the pandemic. “That’s a difficult adjustment — managing distractions and spotty internet connections,” but it’s made easier by communicating on WeChat for any quick issues, Curtis stated.

Office space

The need for office space may reduce, but we’re not going to see flagship buildings turn residential any time soon, according to Patrick Plant, real estate partner at law firm Linklaters.

“I don’t think we’ll suddenly see (London skyscraper) The Shard suddenly becoming a block of apartments from top to bottom, or anything of that kind,” he told CNBC by phone.

But, how offices have adapted will be up for comparison, he suggested. “Peers and contemporaries I’m sure will be comparing notes about what their organization has done or maybe what it hasn’t done … I’m a great believer in the physical space being very much a physical manifestation of the culture of an organization,” Plant said.

Eliot Wilson, head of research at reputation management company Right Angles sees more meetings happening at members’ clubs and says having premises in the U.K. capital is “hard to justify” given their cost.

“Banter with colleagues — that ‘watercooler culture’ — is a nice-to-have, but once you put a cold, hard monetary value on it, I don’t think it stacks up,” he told CNBC by email.

Technology may go some way to providing virtual watercooler moments. Panion is an internal social media platform for businesses, and CEO and founder Melanie Aronson said employees used it to form support groups and find others with similar interests during lockdowns.

Since January, it has seen an 86.7% increase in unique users joining hangouts it calls “gatherings,” for example.

Employee social media app Panion saw a rise in usage during lockdowns caused by the coronavirus.

Panion

Only a quarter of staff will be allowed into the London office of ad agency M&C Saatchi at a time — and on a voluntary basis.

CEO Camilla Kemp hopes that flexible working will attract a more diverse range of people. “We will open up the doors of talent too — making us a more inclusive environment for more talent who otherwise might not have considered a career with us, because they couldn’t physically be ‘in the office’ at conventional working hours,” she told CNBC.

For Peltoniemi at R/GA, life is never likely to be the same again. “I think the nine to five … it’s kind of out of the question now, actually. We did a global work from home survey for our staff and 95% of our global staff feel like they’ve been able to connect and do work at or above the levels that they had been in the past, during the course of the pandemic.”

And while the streets of a city such as Shanghai appear “normal” again, people’s mindset has shifted, Peltoniemi said.

“I was speaking to our leadership team and one of them said it feels like Covid never happened when you walk around Shanghai … When you speak to people more, so much has changed, actually.”

Employees are eating better, taking fitness classes and drinking less alcohol, and they are keen to make their working days more efficient, Peltoniemi said.

“Now that the sort of freedom of doing what we want was taken away from the teams, albeit for a short period of time, it’s almost opened up people’s eyes and minds to, there is more I need to consider than just work and the office life,” he added.

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