Will there ever be a full return to the office? Photo: Raj Rana

How will we return to the workplace after Covid-19?

The profound impact of Covid-19 on the world of work has changed the landscape forever. Some of the trends, like working remotely were already bubbling under, but the pandemic has meant things have accelerated.

Previously held assumptions and norms around how and where work can be done have been challenged and changed. Now, employers are having to explain why they expect people back in the office full-time after 18 months of remote working.

It is clear therefore that companies whose employees are not restricted by where they work will need to embrace the concept of a new, longer-term employment offering. Companies preparing for this new phase are ensuring that their story about who they are as an employer, what their purpose is in the marketplace and how and where they expect people to work is enticing to employees.

If unable to do so, they will be vulnerable to competitors with a better story to tell regarding their employment deal.

While some may yearn for their pre-Covid-19 work environment to return, it is unlikely to look and feel the same.

Promoting a working model that represents how things were in the past is unlikely to attract and engage employees who were already struggling with work and working life before Covid-19.

Author of ‘Thrive in the Future of Work’ and MD of WorkMatters, Kevin Empey believes there are two phases at play to transitioning the return to the office – a short term, tentative return to some office life influenced by the current Covid-19 environment and guidelines and the second more medium-term transition to new models of work, hopefully, free from current restrictions.

“We don’t know for certain what the next set of guidelines are going be regarding workplaces – other than a definite focus on schools, universities, hospitality and so on. For general workplaces and offices, there is likely to be some movement. They may push it out as far as they think they can e.g. mid to end of September to get over the Delta-peak and give the vaccination programme another month or so to penetrate the adult working population.

“But with 90+ per cent of the adult population vaccinated, it surely becomes very hard to defend a hard-line ban on workplaces not being allowed to initiate some re-opening plan or activity,” he said.

However, whether it happens in September or October, the transition is likely to be very modest and slow with companies trialling new work patterns, connecting people back to the office through pilot schemes and experiments.

For the first phase of this transition, Covid-19 is still a very present reality, there will likely not be full capacity, social distancing is still likely.

The transition phase is not going to be anything like normal but hopefully a positive period and experience in getting people slowly connected to their workplaces again as part of their working week.

Phase 2 will then be a modest transition by employers to their post-Covid target work model, perhaps it might be three days in the office, two days for remote for example– all assuming roles are eligible for such a model.

Employers need to embrace the concept of a new, longer-term employment deal over the coming phase – and build in the post-Covid-19 transition to a new, more flexible work model as simply the next chapter of that story.