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  • Writer's pictureDr Lina Engelen

The New Normal in the workplace, here we come - but how?


Months have passed now since Covid-19 first forced us to change what, where, how, when and with whom we are doing things. It has been tumultuous and crazy. But we have gotten on with it; we have shopped online, set up offices in the living rooms sharing space with children learning remotely and isolated ourselves from everyone else. We got used to the interim normal and in many cases actually really started to enjoy it. But slowly, slowly things are starting to change again. With the number of new Corona cases steadying or declining, countries and societies are starting to ease the restrictions. It feels like we are bears emerging from a winter of hibernation. Soon we will start going back to the office again. But do we want to and can we go back to how it was, pre-Corona? Or should we use this glimpse into another way of doing things to recalibrate. What is the New Normal going to look like?


In the last couple of months, many webinars and articles on the New Normal in the workplace have appeared. I have watched and read many of them. To save you the time and effort to do so too, in this post I am summarising what I have learned and what I think we could and should do in six topics:


- Safety

- Trust

- Processes and Leadership

- ‘No regret’ strategies

- What is the role of the office?

- The need for choice


There are also some things that we may not actually want to take onboard, like the high-walled cubicle I wrote about in my last post. You may find that all or only some of these New Normal strategies are appropriate for your workplace.


A primary aim is to improve safety in the workplace


Many infectious diseases, such as Covid-19 can be transmitted through air or via direct or indirect contact. Therefore, the below strategies are focused on reducing the spread via air or contact.


One really positive habit change that has taken place during Corona is the hand washing. People are now washing their hands really well with soap and water. It is such an effective way to reduce the spread of all sorts of viruses, bacteria and other organisms, that I would love to see that habit continue in the New Normal. To support this habit, it would be really good if workplaces could provide handwashing stations throughout the workplace, not just situated in bathrooms.


No-touch controls for doors, lifts, toilet flushing, taps, and cabinets are a relatively easy strategy to implement, and it can be very effective. No more touching door handles or lift buttons that, who knows how many, people have touched before you.


Cleaning protocols will have to be updated, where more thorough cleaning will happen at night/early morning, including of workstations, complemented by frequent cleaning throughout the day in the most visited or used areas. We should thoughtfully re-consider the design of workspaces to reduce the number of surfaces people must touch. Cleaning and disinfectant supplies also need to be available for the workers themselves to use throughout the day.


We have all become masters of physical distancing and physical distancing will continue to be a part of the New Normal. We need to consider the best ways to operationalise physical distancing in the workplace. strategies to consider are things to help nudge the distancing behaviour, such as markings on the floor, rugs demarcating safe distances, staggering of workspaces, or removal of seats to decrease the density of staff at one time. To reduce density, organisations will either need more floor space, or stagger working times and days to reduce the number of people in the office at one time. We need to make it easy to practise physical distancing.


Airborne diseases are transmitted through the air. Hence air quality and air flow become really important to reduce spread of these diseases. A range of strategies have been proposed; improving the air filtration system by using effective filters; bring outdoor air in to dilute concentrations of pathogens; and increasing the air into space through increased speed of ventilation, keeping in mind the importance of how air travels through the space. UV-C radiation seems to be an effective way of deactivating the virus, reducing the transmission of disease via surfaces and through the air.


One of the main issues brought up through discussions and survey results seems to be the lifts. Lifts are interesting places, where a lot of people are crammed into a very small space and then those people quickly get replaced by a new group of people. The lift is the dream location for a virus wanting to spread. If physical distancing was to be implemented in lifts, there would only be space for 1-2 people in each lift. Imagine the time it would take to get up to your office floor in the morning if only one or two people could go every time. By installing effective air filtration, UV-C radiation and no-touch controls in the lifts, the spread could be reduced in and between the lift cabs. The waiting time for the lifts would only be reduced by less people in the building at the one time; staggered start, lunch and finishing times could help, as well as ensuring internal stairs are accessible.


A matter of trust – implementation of these strategies will probably make you safer, but will it make you feel safer?


We need to focus on making people feel safe and remove the psychological barrier of people moving in lifts, around the workplace and on public transport getting to and from work. Corona has caused a high level of anxiety in many workers. To instil a sense of trust, organisations should screen for signs of disease, inform their staff what has been done to create safer environment, educate how to reduce spread, and how to protect themselves, and empower staff by for example allowing flexible work. Strategies have to be put in place that are visible, such as cleaning staff working at visible times of day, hand and surface sanitisers being available throughout the workplace, obstacles to make sure distances are kept, signage on meeting rooms indicating the maximum number of people, and emails sent out, or messages posted on electronic notice boards about safe behaviour and how the air filtration system is optimised. Doing all these things and showing staff that they are done, contributes to a sense of trust in the organisation and makes the workers feel safer.


A need for Processes and Leadership


Changes to the physical space are important, but without relevant guidelines, processes, and strategies the changes will not be very effective, or sustainable. We need to have evidence-based design and office management strategies in place. This includes policies and practises for the organisation’s office as well as home and co-working offices, because flexible working is here to stay. Office culture rules may also need to be adapted; the good old hand-shake is now just old. Now we will elbow bump colleagues and clients, stand and sit at a safe distance, and celebrations including sharing of food and drink may look very different to pre-Corona.


The New Normal is also a call for a recalibration of leadership. The interim normal has seen managers needing to adapt their leadership style to suit the remote way of working; leading a distributed workforce. We have shown that we no longer need to be seen at our desk for our supervisor to think we are working. Those managers who have not been able to adjust to this, may not be the most suitable leaders for the New Normal, or may have to upgrade their leadership style. Perhaps the New Normal will see the emergence of a new leadership style, where choice and adaptability are key attributes.


Improvements to health and wellbeing in the workplace should be ‘no regret’


Wellbeing is tantamount to resilience. Recent studies have found that people with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, as well as people who are obese, are more at risk of complications and death from Covid-19 than healthy people. In fact, most Corona death victims had co-morbidities of other diseases. Promoting overall health and wellbeing can hence be preventive for a range of diseases. It therefore makes real sense to implement New Normal strategies that are health and wellbeing promoting; these are ‘no regret strategies’. This could include increased opportunities to move around more in the workplace, including using internal stairs, availability of fresh water for drinking and healthy food options, as well as opportunities to interact socially with colleagues. Better health and wellbeing is always a ‘no regret’.


What is the role of the office?


Now we have an opportunity to rethink what we want our organisation to stand for. We should think about what the purpose of an office is? Why do we and our staff want to go to a workplace?

We need to think about what kind of activities need to happen at the physical workplace and what things are done equally well elsewhere? It is important to understand what an organisation, or department does and needs, and what the function of the workplace should be for that organisation. Concentrated work could be done at home, at a local satellite office or co-working hub, at the library or local café. On the other hand, there is nothing that quite beats face-to-face interaction for setting up collaborations, building relationships and co-creating. The organisation’s office could be then be the place to meet each other and clients, to collaborate, to set up new initiatives and create a sense of company identity.


I think that the office as such is never going away, but more emphasis will be put on designing ‘destinations’ in the office, where people will want to go to.


The office should be a place to gather together, where we feel comfortable and can have interactions and make connections. Zoom-gloom is really a thing. It is really good that we have the technological capabilities and tools to meet and collaborate remotely. But, Zoom meetings are a little static. You have to wait until the other person has finished talking, there is no place for sounds of agreement, or interjections. There is little space for creative thinking and innovation and not many opportunities for collective laughter. My personal experience is that collaborating online with people I have previously worked closely with is fine; I know their facial expressions and tone of voice and I don’t get nervous when they don’t look me in the eye when we speak. However, I find it hard to find a connection and to really collaborate and be creative online with people I have no prior work experience with. The current discourse is around why we want to gather together in person. I think it is for a sense of connection, belonging, interactions, and effective exchange of ideas.


We may have to rewire our brains as to what the office is; it will no longer be ONE location, there will be a range of physical and virtual locations that support functionality and choice.


In the New Normal flexibility and choice will be the key concepts, alongside safety, health and wellbeing. The Covid-19 crisis was the first pandemic of this scale in a very long time, but it may not be the last. The world is everchanging and we need to create environments that are flexible enough to easily handle and adapt to new situations and change. During the remote working period, many have really benefitted from the newfound work-life balance. In the New Normal we will have a more fluid work-life integration, where work could happen at any time, in any location. I think the key to doing this successfully is to provide and support choice; choice as to where you physically work, and when. It should be not only permitted, but implied, that we work from home when we are feeling ill, so that we protect others. Those night owls who produce their finest work while others are asleep after they have spent hours playing with their kids; and those early birds who crack out a report or two before most even have their morning coffee, should be allowed to do so. We then can say that we have successfully implemented the choice and flexibility that the New Normal should promote.


We clearly have a long way ahead of us before the New Normal has become… well, normal. But born from such a global crisis, we have a unique opportunity to recalibrate and to create something better and healthier than we had before. Are you and your organisation up for the challenge?


Stay well,

Lina

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