The “New” Office Awaits
By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC
Businesses of all types need to create a “skill-building” roadmap because the future of business operations will be different. But how different?
Let’s consider the fundamentals of future communication. For the past couple of years, the most we have seen of others were their head and shoulders, brought to you by Zoom meetings. Maybe something was given away by a furtive eye roll or a nervous tic during the Zoom calls, but you could not be sure. Now, if someone says something weird or off-putting in the coffee break room, will we go back to slapping our foreheads in frustration; offer an annoying snort; or emit a “stage” sigh?
What will company leaders do to help employees re-engage with colleagues? Will there be new approaches to communicating, conducting more effective meetings, and having conversations that are a give and take in equal measures?
There may have been a negative impact on company culture, especially if there was a collaborative work environment. The freedom that may have existed prior to the Covid-19 pandemic may be curtailed somewhat because of the need to meet certain metrics. Will the “catch up” mindset or recalibrated performance metrics be part of the new normal?
Organizations need to consider the effect remote work has had on their employees. A “re-entry” process should begin, and senior company leaders should take the time to have a meeting, where practicable, with each employee to determine if there are any emotional issues at play.
Feelings of anxiety would not be unusual as a result of suddenly being taken out of a “safe zone” and back into some sort of attempt at normality and routine.
There are a lot of questions company leaders and their employees will have upon returning to the office. To mitigate the uncertainty, companies should develop a list of clear and sensible guidelines to ensure as safe a work environment as possible. While employees have to get back into the swing of things, so do leaders. They have to recharge and reinvigorate their teams, while also trying to uncover dissatisfaction roiling just under the surface. A process should be implemented that monitors employee attitudes on a regular basis to ascertain whether there are potential emotional problems; this is especially critical during times of heavy workloads.
The ”New Office
There are physical and human infrastructures. While the former has received much attention, the latter has mostly been ignored — though the tide is shifting. Right now, with the influx of workers back into the office, the focus is on ventilation systems, sanitizing, lighting, and floor space. These are some of the areas that companies are looking at that will not only make the work environment healthier but also will elevate moods and energy levels.
Companies have been experimenting with floor design; open floor space with very few private offices to encourage more human interaction. More natural lighting to improve psychological wellbeing, focus, and productivity. And if there are a lot of windows, then a better chance to get some vitamin D. Think of Las Vegas: the Forum Shoppes in Caesar’s Palace. Much, if not all, of the corridor ceiling, shows a bright blue sky with puffy clouds.
So at 2:00am, your dining experience will feel like an early spring evening; the sun supposedly setting 30 minutes earlier. For those folks in the Northeast and Midwest, winters are interminably long. Anything that can be done to make the short days survivable will go a long way to improve the general outlook of folks — even if just a little bit. Think of tax preparers; they start and end their busy seasons in the dark. A little natural or faux natural light can help.
Finally, rounding out the physical infrastructure, it wouldn’t hurt to provide nutritious and healthy snack options.
These are some basic improvements to implement…in theory. Yes, they will cost money; they should, however, be considered investments for the future. Some businesses may ask why make such an investment now if their lease is up in two or three years. This question should be given the weight it deserves. It will be a matter of reimagining an office that caters to full- and part-time remote workers, as well as those individuals who either prefer to be in an office or whose responsibilities require them to be in the office.
For companies still believing in “presenteeism,” they will have to create a safe work environment that covers sanitization to communication and everything in between. Companies that are moving to remote working should ensure that everyone has the proper office equipment, software, and security guidelines. Moreover, leaders should take steps to ensure that all employees are “in the loop” when it comes to company issues or news.
The importance of intra-office communication cannot be overemphasized as companies reopen their offices. Here are some things to consider:
- What is the intention behind a change in processes?
- How and when the basics of change will take place?
- What is envisioned for the company after the change is implemented?
- How may staff respond, and what can be done to allay any concerns?
- How will new processes be monitored to assess their effectiveness?
If retaining and attracting top talent is a top concern, then subsequent changes in how companies will operate should have the long game in mind, especially if the degree of change will position the company as a desirable place to work. Accounting firms, as well as other businesses, are at a crossroads. Imminent leadership changes will add to the uncertainty as each new managing partner or CEO will endeavor to put his or her own imprint during their tenure. What should be a top-of-mind objective is creating an efficient, safe, and culturally inviting workplace.
What about the human infrastructure? The policy of DEI; reorganizing business structures to allow for more collaborative work; reducing a sense of isolation created by long-term remote working; and most important, ensuring the mental wellbeing is being monitored and managed are of primary importance.
Let’s talk a bit about the emotional and mental aspects. You don’t have to be a doctor, but you can sense when someone is reaching the point of burnout. It is important for companies and firms to provide resources for workers, such as an employee assistance program that addresses stress-related situations and provides counseling, or perhaps, makes available a hotline for guidance and advice.
We have heard ad nauseum the notion of a work-life balance. Talk to people who for two years had expressed the challenge of balancing family and work — and those were just the ones who had childcare. Think about those families that did not have such a luxury. Knowing the challenges employees have faced and will continue to, companies will have to create a really sensible work arrangement that strikes a clear balance between work and home.
Companies have started rules that discourage employee emails after a certain time. Or, when on vacation, they are asked not to draft or respond to emails. They should leave thoughts of a current project back in the office and not allow them to hover over the beach or golf course. This would be ideal if there were no looming important deadlines. And if “family first” will truly be the company ethos, we’ll see what the results will be over the next year or two.
There should be a level of expectation for bosses and employees. The “new normal” will have to be implemented in short order. Consider whether it is important to have everyone be in an office full-time or even half-time? Is having a physical structure really necessary? Lease renewals; redesigned floor plans; additional amenities, and on and on. These costs may or may not be necessary.
Once you decide whether you want employees in the office full-time or part-time, or you decide on a fully remote office, consider what kind of productivity will be measured, and how. If results, as opposed to appearances, are more important, then as you go through re-opening the office think about what you want for your company and your employees.
If employees are their companies’ most valuable assets as is frequently claimed, then all pending actions will have to regard this philosophy as an underpinning of all future activities and decisions.
Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at www.solutions2results.com.