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What’s the Future of Office Work Amid COVID-19 Uncertainty?

Friday, August 5, 2022

Shutdowns, second wave, partial lockdowns, new or renewed restrictions: COVID-19 is impacting every aspect of our life, including our work environment. Before March 2020, the standard work model was simple—it was all about collaborating with as many people from different backgrounds as possible to coin the next brilliant idea that would disrupt the market. With this model, the typical environment was world-class campuses designed and outfitted to attract the best talent.

Enter the pandemic and a complete rewrite of “normal life” rules. Office towers emptied out, business districts are questioning their very purpose and collateral damages are already huge for companies supporting office workers and office life in general. What will tomorrow’s companies look like? Will they even have physical offices? We all have a lot of questions and at this stage, it’s all hypotheses and speculation—welcome to Office Life 2.0.

“Back to normal”—but what’s “normal,” really?

It’s fairly logical to assume we will all be going back to “normal” when a vaccine becomes available. But we may be dealing with a “new normal,” not the “old normal” we were familiar with before COVID-19. Many companies successfully switched to remote work and they are now reconsidering leasing office space. After all, is it worth the expense if remote teams can collaborate efficiently? This is why Shopify decided to become a “digital by default” company and rework offices for a new reality.

The “big five” tech companies are also getting creative about their office space—their giant and impressive campuses designed to foster collaboration and boost innovation are now mostly empty and these beehives of activity may not buzz the same ever again. But Silicon Valley tends to embrace change. For instance, Google is still investing in corporate campuses but the company is considering billing it as a “neighborhood” with homes, shops and parks.

How Silicon Valley is dealing the crisis

  • Coinbase: the start-up pivoted to become a “remote-first company” and is embracing a working from home culture wherever employees are.
  • Twitter: with the exception of employees whose jobs require them be physically present at office, all other employees can work from home permanently—and the offer stands even after the pandemic.
  • Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon: most of these big companies switched to remote work until specific dates, depending on the pandemic situation. Fine print depends on the company—some contribute to a home office setup, but Facebook is planning to revise salaries according to the local cost of living, with a pay cut for employees no longer located in Silicon Valley.

Fully remote mode, whenever possible

The fully remote approach works well in corporate cultures that are already digital native. However, a few strategies must be implemented to manage the transition. Companies should invest in:

  • Productivity tools (for videoconferencing, instant messaging, collaborative platforms, etc.).
  • Adapted work environments—at home or elsewhere—with all the required IT security in place (no connection to public Wi-Fi, strong passwords, etc.).
  • Valuable employee and manager training to cultivate engagement (onboarding process, entry-level employee support, remote social events, mentoring and virtual coaching, etc.).
  • Retention strategies (home office fund, meal delivery at home, online fitness membership, training, etc.).

Hybrid-remote model, a world of new opportunities to explore

With the hybrid-remote model (i.e. three weeks of remote work and one week at the office, or two days of remote work and three days at the office), companies become a semi-dematerialized and fully functional place where employees no longer have “their” spot—think “clean desk,” “hot desking” and “digital nomads.”

While the hybrid-remote model involves physical meetings, they don’t necessarily take place in the company’s office space—employees can meet in a coffee shop, rented space or their living room. Some kind of WeWork-style formula could be an option, with employees mostly working from home with access to a secure, professional environment when needed. The goal would be using modular and temporary offices and develop a “COVID-compliant” quality standard.

Beyond the location, the typical workday and workweek schedule could also change. Remote work could be dedicated to “focused tasks” (writing, analyzing, reviewing, etc.) with scheduled in-person meetings. Remotely, employees concentrate on intellectually demanding tasks (ex. writing, proofreading, analyzing), whereas meetings are physically organized over a specific period of time. In the age of “bleisure travel,” a seminar could take place on a Thursday and Friday in a hotel to give employees the opportunity to stay on-site over the weekend and enjoy a break with their family. Ultimately, the physical location can become less important than the purpose of the meeting.

Fully remote, full-time office work or hybrid-remote models are all being considered as companies are adapting to the COVID-19 crisis. In Silicon Valley or elsewhere around the world, resilience and agility matter more than ever in times of uncertainty and will also make the difference during recovery.