Technology and the Office in the Post-Pandemic World

COVID forced millions to learn how to work from home. Now, we will need to relearn how to better work in the office

Woman engineer or architect working in a modern office on a project visualized with augmented reality software.

At the onset of the pandemic, many of us were forced to work remotely. As a result, virtual collaboration tools have become ingrained in the modern work fabric. Though COVID variants remain a concern, we can finally see a day when normal life starts to return. But will work ever be the same? It’s hard to imagine that it will. 

For some, working from home is here to stay. For others, a hybrid approach of a few days in the office and the remainder at home is in the cards. Regardless of where teams are located, leaders need to continue to use technology to foster a sense of connectedness, to offer upskilling and reskilling opportunities, and to accelerate approvals and cross-functional work flows. In this instalment of our four-part series on the future of work, we dive into technology and the office. We asked four business leaders and professors for their ideas on how we can build back better. 

Keep the focus on the “real work”

Last May, I co-authored an article entitled The Next Stage of the Crisis Is Upon Us that made reference to a historical six-stage crisis model. I wrote that organizations were moving out of the so-called “honeymoon phase” of the COVID-19 crisis toward a more challenging stage: “disillusionment”. In this stage, companies would come to realize a return to normal was no longer an option. Leaders would be tested on their ability to embrace an entirely new level of uncertainty.

In many ways, the disillusionment stage played out as anticipated. For example, companies reeled in their goals to get clarity: a set of 90- to 120-day work priorities.

However, a byproduct emerged that we did not predict. Greater clarity on the work, amplified by the rapid adoption of virtual collaboration tools, unleashed a natural source of capacity among workers to get things done. Approvals were accelerated and cross-functional work flowed easier because people got clarity on what work was really important. They felt a sense of responsibility to connect their day-to-day work to actual results. Simply stated, we learned that when smart, capable people are given a clear set of priorities, the right technology tools and a sense of urgency, they will naturally seek out the best way to drive desired results.

Virtual collaboration tools have become ingrained in the modern work fabric. However, in the final “reconstruction” stage of the crisis, clarity on the work will reduce as tensions between short-term priorities and longer-term strategic goals begin to re-emerge. Leaders should analyze and identify the practices that made them an effective execution leader during the previous stages of this crisis and actively future-proof their approach.

Kathryn Brohman is Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Digital Technology at Smith School of Business.

Leverage tech to create a personalized employee experience

The last year reminded us of how important individual employees are to organizational success. Now it’s time to combine advancements in technology with a critical mass of people and work data to put the “human” back into human resources. Historically, companies relied on a manager’s memory and written records to track employee preferences, performance and development needs. Making sense of all this information isn’t something humans do well. It’s a task better suited for machines.

Artificial intelligence algorithms, when trained ethically and effectively, will let organizations understand their people in a holistic way that was not previously possible at scale. The result: a “smart” workplace in which learning, upskilling and reskilling can be tailored to each person.

Meaningful opportunities look different to everyone. It won’t be enough to assume that leaders understand an individual employee’s journey by mapping high-level personas. Instead, with AI, each worker can have a personalized profile that considers their wants, needs, motivations and priorities.

Intelligent organizations are already collecting people data. The result is an ever-growing repository of institutional knowledge. This can be leveraged to power enabling tools that support the individual employee experience across the entire talent lifecycle.

Such tools will allow employees to reclaim their agency to choose the projects they want to work on, or to provide data-supported nudges to prompt more strategic career-path decisions. Organizations that recognize the cruciality of listening to employees, and flex to meet their needs, will come out the other side with a more personal, human experience in the workplace.

Dagmar Christianson is an independent workforce transformation consultant.

Adopt a flexible hybrid work policy

Working from home is here to stay. Not the 100 per cent work from home that we see now, but a hybrid of a few days in the office and the remainder at home. Several factors will contribute to this:

  1. COVID destigmatized working from home: Data shows that people are generally more productive at home. That was the case before COVID, too. But pre-COVID, there was a major self-selection of people who worked from home. Research suggests that those who did might not have been the most productive employees to begin with. Now, working from home is not about slacking off.
  2. Switching to working from home was risky and costly, and since the benefits were unclear, many businesses were unwilling to experiment. COVID forced the experiment, and it was generally a success.
  3. Research studies show that people like working from home part of the week. On average, participants in one large-scale study indicated that they would be willing to forego eight per cent of their pay to have a flexible arrangement between office and house. They indicated the time saved on commute and the flexibility with home and family-related matters as the main drivers of value.

Working from home, however, has several implications that businesses must watch for. First, businesses need to rethink office space. Social distancing is also here to stay, so while fewer people will work from the office, more space will be needed per person. Additionally, the composition of office spaces might change—away from skyscrapers with packed elevators to mid-rise office parks.

A troubling sign of working from home is that it might interfere with promotions: a pre-COVID field experiment at a large Chinese travel agency showed that employees who worked from home were significantly less likely to be promoted, despite actually being more productive. This was both because their work was less visible than that of their colleagues who worked in the office, and because they had fewer opportunities to develop leadership skills as a result of interacting less with others. Thus, it will be critical for companies to have a flexible policy intermixing working in the office with working from home.

COVID forced millions to learn how to work at home. Post-COVID, we will need to relearn how to better work in the office.

Anton Ovchinnikov is Distinguished Professor of Management Analytics at Smith School of Business.

Explore how tech can make remote work more human

Prior to the pandemic, the company I co-founded, Borrowell, had a definite in-person culture. People worked from home occasionally. But most meetings, collaboration and socials were in person.

As a tech company, the move to remote work last year was technically easy. Everyone had a laptop. More challenging, however, was replicating all those unplanned interactions that being in the office afforded. For example: learning through osmosis from colleagues’ conversations; quickly pulling people into a huddle to solve a problem; or getting to know someone over lunch or a walk to the coffee shop.

As we move forward, it’s my belief there will be new and better technology solutions that enable these unplanned interactions, as well as creative collaboration, to happen virtually. At the onset of the pandemic, many organizations had to quickly adopt new communications platforms to maintain organizational efficiency. Moving forward, I encourage leaders to explore ways to use technology to foster a sense of connectedness.

In many ways, working virtually has been great for us at Borrowell. During the pandemic, we acquired a company on the West Coast, so being remote levelled the playing field between us. There isn’t a divide based on whether someone is working in the same office or across screens. But there is still something missing. And while technology might not be able to completely replace in-person interactions, I know we’d all benefit from remote work feeling more personal, more connected and more human.

Eva Wong is co-founder and chief operating officer at Borrowell.

This article is one of a four-part series on working. For more, read: Leadership in a Post-Pandemic WorldTeamwork in a Post-Pandemic World and Inclusion in the Post-Pandemic WorldThis article originally appeared in Smith Magazine, the alumni publication of Smith School of Business, Queen’s University.