COVID Insights, Perspectives July 20, 2020

The Post-COVID Office: Preventing a Backslide to Old Norms and Attitudes about Working From Home

Workplace Strategy leaders and change management experts Lisa Pool and Emily Klein offer salient strategies for easing the transition to hybrid teams. When some employees are remote and others are at home, the key is embracing the "phigital" and applying proven methods for managing change.

Against a backdrop of cycles of infectious outbreaks in various regions across the United States, the WFH experiment continues.  Where this year will lead is anyone’s guess, but leaders who manage change can embrace this moment as an opportunity to encourage lasting transformation in how, when and where we work.

Once the risk of contracting the disease lessens—when proven treatments and a vaccination become broadly available—we may see a slide backwards into old norms and attitudes about working from home.  If change practitioners prepare ahead of time for this, companies can successfully transform how space in the office is most effectively utilized with larger numbers of employees continuing to work from home one or more days per week.

In the past, WFH was perceived as a benefit or perk for the few and not the many.  In recent years, flexible and remote work gained popularity in a variety of industries with the explosion of technology to support it. During this pandemic, however more adept at WFH we may now be, there remains an underlying stigma—the idea that not being seen in the office equals lost opportunities for collaboration and less contact with colleagues, leading to the perception that home working is inferior to being co-located.

During the COVID era, we have collectively stepped up our game in leveraging technology like Teams and Zoom to collaborate with surprising success and productivity. But based on informal conversations with employees about returning to work, ones underscored by our own survey data, what’s missing for employees is informal ad hoc collaboration—the unscripted social moments that are the cultural underpinnings of the office experience.

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Can we as change practitioners help communicate and train employees on how to script the unscripted with remote workers?  This is an important question to explore as we think about the future of workplace in a Phigital world, a term coined by Jonah Stillman in his book, GenZ @Work, one where we integrate the physical world with the experience of the digital world. Generation Z, having grown up with this ethos, will no doubt expect employers to offer a variety of experiences in how they work. Companies will need to augment the workplace experience with online engagement to provide a more dimensional journey that integrates work and life.

Added to this not too distant future are current concerns about employee safety in returning to offices and how to design workspaces for greater material health and wellness. This poses unique challenges and opportunities for change leaders in planning for and integrating elements of successful return to offices.  Employees are calling for greater long-term flexibility, dividing time between in-office work and remote work nearly 50% of the time; this dynamic will fuel the growth of hybrid teams.

Change practitioners can lean into this moment by applying the Prosci ADKAR framework to help prepare for the return to the workplace and embrace of a new normal. This approach must reinforce the idea that an evolving workplace is one that embraces a phigital future while mitigating a backslide into old norms and outdated or negative perceptions about WFH.  So, what does that look like?

Prosci's ADKAR approach is a proven framework for managing change.


Awareness of the need for change: Employers should survey employees to gauge how they are currently working and how they expect to work in the post-COVID world. Identifying patterns and trends will inform leaders about how to execute the return to offices successfully while being mindful of current employee preferences and business practices. Raising awareness also involves integrating informal feedback loops, keeping employees informed about survey results and leadership decisions that impact the way business will be conducted while accounting for the impact of external forces.


Motivate employees by communicating the new normal and long-term implications: Helping employees see themselves in leading the change towards a phigital workplace enlists them as change agents and stakeholders. Showing them that what they are moving toward is greater than what they are leaving behind is key to not only elevating the desire for change but sustaining the change itself.


Creating cultural equity in the phigital world: Cultural equity will be established through informal collaboration and continued use of digital platforms regardless of in-office presence.  Interacting with employees via multi-modal communications, including signage on how the office is changing, helps employees feel safe and supported from wherever they are. This will continue to be important, as psychologists say employees have been through trauma, having to pivot quickly out of offices while being thrust into a hyper-awareness of health and safety risks against an invisible enemy. When employers provide the resources for employees to know how to take better care of themselves, the workplace becomes more focused on health and wellness.


Workplace changes benefit from upskilling: With the expansion of hybrid teams and increase in employees working at home, employers should invest in designing and conducting training programs for managers. The focus should be on coaching employees on how to lead, mentor, and manage distributed teams, demonstrating results-oriented thinking and outcomes. Training sessions help employees apply new skills and behaviors and recognize those new behaviors as the norm for the workplace.


New behaviors sustain the change: Moving to a new “business as usual” will require not only ongoing training but mechanisms for reinforcing those changes.  Reinforcing new behaviors can be done through a variety of ways, such as linking new behavior to individual and team performance evaluations, or creating virtual town hall events that celebrate changes embraced by hybrid teams, with new ways of leveraging digital platforms. Creating new cultural norms and rewarding the behavior these norms espouse is a powerful tool against backsliding into old patterns and habits.

While 2020 continues to be challenging and unsettling worldwide, change practitioners and leaders can embrace this unique moment by applying a focused approach and proven methods to moving through change in the months ahead. These approaches will help to sustain a lasting and productive shift in the workplace for years to come.