Are you coming into an office soon? Expect to see a lot of changes

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Countless office towers, offices, meeting rooms and cubicles have remained empty throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. As people carefully negotiate their return to the office over the next few months, they will likely see a lot of change.“The central problem is that there is a push and pull between an employer and an employee,” says Robert Palter, senior partner at management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

As they walk through their modern Toronto offices, the common areas with sofas that once served as social gatherings and the dining areas for sharing a meal all remain closed. A company museum in the image of the workplace.

Almost three quarters of 3.4 million Canadians who started working from home in March continued to do so in August, according to Statistics Canada.

“If you look at the amount that was written down and talked about in this work from home experience, there are equal amounts written down at diametrically opposite ends of this debate,” says Palter.

One side is in favor of working from home and the flexibility it offers. The other says that the office is a fundamental workplace, essential for creative collaboration and staff development.

In the Toronto offices of management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, comfy sofas that once served as a place for informal discussions in the office are currently off limits due to physical distancing rules. (Mia Sheldon / CBC)

Working from home was tried at various scales in the past, but never under current circumstances, but few companies have adopted it permanently. In fact, Yahoo, IBM, and other companies have banned working from home in recent years, citing the benefits of in-person collaboration.

“Amazon actually buys offices because they want people to work in offices,” says Palter.

At the same time, he cites examples such as Facebook, which says remote working turned out to be OK. The social media giant has announced plans to continue with this model for the foreseeable future.

Robert Palter, senior partner at management consulting firm McKinsey & Company in Toronto, said, “I think every company will have its own policy” regarding office layout and behavior, while COVID-19 remains a threat for public health. (Mia Sheldon / CBC)

There are a lot of arguments for and against remote working arrangements, but for companies that want people to return to their usual offices, how do you secure their workspaces during a pandemic?

Samantha Sannella, managing director of strategic planning at global commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield, says that while hard numbers aren’t yet available, she is learning, anecdotally, that downtown in Toronto, only two to 10 percent of the office workforce returned. far. However, that number is expected to increase as schools reopen and parents will not need to stay home to care for their children, so workplaces are taking steps to accommodate more staff. safely.

“We met several engineers just to see how the [virus] droplets could spill, ”explains Sannella, describing the actions taken by her company.

“We had to quickly go through a lot of research to understand how the virus spreads and come up with a list of physical interventions and behavioral protocols combined to produce a risk mitigation strategy.

This means things like arrows directing the flow of traffic within the office, a clean office policy, and no standing desks to prevent the spread of droplets.

The McKinsey & Company offices in Toronto have stickers on the floor indicating where and in what direction employees are allowed to walk. (Mia Sheldon / CBC)

In addition to the movement of people in offices, there are problems such as the circulation of air in the workplace. The pandemic has caused engineers to look beyond the design of a building’s traditional ventilation and HVAC.

“We advise a lot of owners and developers. And one thing we recommend now is maybe that you should consider opening windows, ”says Sannella.

“We’re going to see the innovation of that, and the innovation of engineers on how to manage the airflow in a building that has windows that open. We will see this continue in the future. “

Samantha Sannella said that Cushman and Wakefield, “had to quickly do a lot of research to understand how the virus spreads and to come up with a list of physical interventions and behavioral protocols combined to produce a risk mitigation strategy.” (Evan Mitsui / CBC)

However, physically changing the traditional workplace cannot go so far. The biggest changes, especially in the short term, are likely to be behavioral – trying to make the office a pleasant, albeit sterile, place to go and encourage innovation and collaboration.

The old office allowed employees to stand out, build social capital, network with other staff and move up the corporate ladder – something Cushman & Wakefield is trying to solve.

“We know that people find it difficult to leave the office, they feel disconnected from their employees, from their colleagues,” says Catherine Tourigny, workplace strategist at Cushman & Wakefield.

“And in the future, we will create spaces that bring people together safely so they can collaborate and share ideas. ”

This means focusing on areas of office collaboration that will always encourage physical distancing, and which can blend into elements of virtual collaboration to keep groups small.

Almost six months after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Canadians are still working from home, which has changed the demand for housing and could cause the need for commercial space to drop. 2:34

Then there is the matter of making sure everyone is following the rules.

At Cushman & Wakefield, they have embraced the concept of “champions of change,” employees who will report that co-workers have broken the rules. So far, the company says there have been several complaints about people’s behavior in the workplace.

As the return to the office moves slowly, Sannella says building trust between employers and employees is vital.

A recent KPMG survey found that 82 percent of people said they trusted their employer to take all necessary precautions, but 60 percent said they would refuse to enter their offices if they did not feel safe .

This means that conversations about sick days, workspaces, office rules and expectations will likely need to be an ongoing process, as conditions of the pandemic change.

“I think every business will have their own policy, but if they’re going to keep people engaged and productive, they’re going to have to think about these things,” says Palter.

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