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What to expect from a post-lockdown workplace and how to adapt

By Yvonne Smyth, Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Hays

As a phased return to the workplace begins to become a reality for many of us, you’ll find the workplace you’re returning to is very different from the one you left. For some, the rapid move to remote working may have been a big adjustment, but transitioning back could be an even greater challenge.

To begin with, adherence to social distancing will see your former workplace layout replaced with a new seating plan, and it is likely that you will return on a scheduled basis with staggered start and finish times. There will also be fewer in-person meetings, and any that do take place may need to have time limits and a cap on attendees.

In short, the workplace will be re-ordered to keep people further apart than most of us have ever experienced before in our working lives.

Whilst you will still encounter many more in-person interactions with your colleagues compared to your time remote working, you should expect significantly reduced levels of contact in comparison to pre-pandemic times.

Consequently, if you are the type of person who thrives on interaction with your colleagues, you should set aside the time now to adapt and find alternative measures to facilitate safe social interaction in the workplace.

To prepare, here’s some points you’ll need to consider:

You’ll have fewer informal in-person chats

Firstly, you should expect your office space to look very different. To comply with continued physical distancing measures, your employer will have reconfigured seating plans and moved desks apart to separate people. You may even find yourself further separated from colleagues by partitions.

Hot-desking, where several employees use a single workstation at different times, will also go by the wayside as employers assign employees their own equipment and look to reduce the number of shared touchpoints people come into contact with on a daily basis.

In addition, you’ll no longer be able to sit and chat with colleagues in a break-out area or a communal kitchen.

By keeping staff physically distant, there will be fewer opportunities for in-person conversations. You can no longer simply look up from your monitor and ask a quick question, for example, or roll your chair over to your colleague’s desk to talk through an idea. Neither can you crowd into a meeting room for an in-person consultation with your team.

You won’t see colleagues as frequently

Organisations will transition their workforce back into the office in stages to reduce density in the workplace. A rota-based system is the most likely strategy to begin with, which will see you continuing to work from home on certain days and coming into the office on others. This means you’ll only initially see those colleagues who are scheduled to work in the office on the same day or days as you.

Employers may also adopt staggered start and finish times to further reduce the number of employees gathering at the lift at the beginning and end of each day.

In addition, many people are expected to ask to continue to work from home after the pandemic, even once restrictions lift and employees can return full-time to the office. With the widespread realisation that employees can work successfully from home, hybrid teams will become common.

As a result, the notion of having all your colleagues in the one co-located workplace all the time is a thing of the past. Instead, you’ll need to become comfortable operating in a hybrid team where face-to-face interactions with all your team members occurs far less frequently.

If you find you work best face-to-face, look at alternatives

Together, these changes result in a less interactive environment. Chances are you’ll either relish or loathe this change. After all, all workplaces consist of people with a mixture of working styles. Some people shine in a collaborative, team-based environment where they can seek out in-person social stimulation, think out loud with others and brainstorm together at their desk.

In contrast, the introverts in your workplace thrive when working on individual tasks, value privacy, like to make their own decisions rather than consult a group, and come up with their best ideas after contemplating a problem on their own.

The latter group will welcome these workplace changes, while the former will miss the hustle and bustle of a full office, the opportunity to drop by their colleague’s desk to bounce ideas around and the chance to work closely with others in a group setting. So, if you have previously thrived in a social, connected and collaborative environment, you will need to find new ways to keep your motivation, energy and output high.

Six ways to adapt if your post-lockdown workplace doesn’t suit your working style

1. Make time for casual (virtual) catch-ups. Begin by working out how you can continue to use virtual alternatives to build a rapport and interactions with your colleagues. Over the last few months, we have all used communication platforms to hold regular virtual meetings and video calls. However, the days of relying on such tools are far from over – the need to comply with physical distancing measures means that teams will still use these tools for a significant portion of their face-to-face interactions, especially in hybrid teams where some colleagues continue to work remotely.

Given that we will still rely on such tools, why not make the most of them by dedicating time in each meeting for small talk? For example, you could invite people to remain for ten minutes after your weekly team meeting or join ten minutes early for a casual chat. You may need to initiate the initial conversation, but you’ll likely find your colleagues will soon come to look forward to this opportunity to talk casually with their colleagues. This will give you a chance to recharge your energy through social conversations and interactions with others.

2. Create opportunities for talking things through. You could also ask to add into the weekly meeting agenda a dedicated time for brainstorming, where anyone can share a challenge they are facing or task they would like to discuss. If you are the type of person who generates their best ideas by talking them through with others, this will give you an opportunity to think out loud and discuss your thoughts.

3. Network online as much as possible. If you enjoy talking and socialising, and draw your energy from interactions with others, you could also up the amount of time you spend networking online and take every opportunity to pick up the phone and talk to colleagues. So long as you adhere to social distancing, you can still talk through an idea with colleagues who are working in the office too, but it’s important to be mindful that not everyone will want you regularly dropping by their desk.

4. If possible, ask to come into the workplace on a more regular basis. If you require the hum of activity in a busy office to do your best work, ask your employer if you can return permanently to the office. While your employer may need to restrict the number of employees who can work in the office initially, there may be someone in your team who would prefer to work exclusively from home. If that’s the case, ask if you could be assigned their allocated office-based days on the rota.

5. Look for upskilling opportunities. It may also help you to use this time to upskill in independent working techniques. Learning how to self-motivate, trust your instincts and individually solve problems without needing to talk through ideas with others are skills that will benefit you long-term in your career. There are many tools and platforms out there for you to choose from when it comes to upskilling remotely at this time, from podcasts to virtual webinars and books. With fewer opportunities to chat casually at your colleagues’ desks or while sitting down over a quick cup of tea in the kitchen, you may also find that your productivity or quality of work improves as you have more time to spend on your individual output.

6. Prioritise your wellbeing. Finally, it’s important to look after your mental wellbeing. If you thrive when working closely with others in a group setting, you may find yourself battling feelings of loneliness, even when you are back in the office. After all, those partitions and separated desks are designed to keep people further apart than most of us have ever experienced before at work, so look out for suitable opportunities where you can interact with others – just ensure you adhere to the necessary physical distancing while doing so.

To sum up, if you are someone who naturally performs at your best when interacting in-person with others, these tips should help you find new ways to keep your motivation, energy and output high in today’s modified workplace.

You may not be pulling your chair up to a colleague’s desk for a chat or to brainstorm, but you can find alternative measures to bring out your best and interact with others safely in the post-lockdown workplace.

To access a host of resources for helping you to adapt to the new way of working, visit our Inspire Me in the New Era of Work hub. As your lifelong career partner, we are with you every step of the way and will be updating the new site regularly with new guides, blogs and information to support you.

About this author

Yvonne is Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Hays, working with our clients to ensure their recruitment strategies are aligned with the latest equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) policies and initiatives. She is responsible for creating and implementing diverse recruitment strategies that effectively support the representation of more diverse staff profiles within their business.

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