Before the pandemic, trendy office design companies were doing a roaring trade in intimate pods to facilitate collaboration in open-space offices. 

During a pandemic, even with the go-ahead to return to the office, I suspect there won’t be too much co-creation going on in those spaces for a while. 

Social distancing has caused a rethink of the office footprint in a whole new way. If collaborating is going to be difficult, what are we going back to the office for? What is this new emotional space going to look and feel like, once the initial hunger for contact and familiarity has been satiated?

Safety is going to be everyone’s primary driver, of course. Tape on the floor, Perspex dividers and masks will be the order of the day.

All these can be easily defeated by the instinct to make a colleague a cuppa and linger for a chat on delivery. These moments of connection are what many people report missing most.

Preparing the ground, literally and metaphorically, is hugely important.  

Legislating for impulses

Those who work in health and safety will tell you legislating for informal, habitual impulses is the biggest challenge.

Yes, there will be formal risk assessments and rigorous planning… and then someone will just do what they have always done and defeat the beautifully designed system.

Complying with the regime

Lawyers are comfortable with the concept of compliance, yet that’s not the whole story here. Being disciplinarian is likely to defeat the object of going to work at all; if people feel unsafe or uncomfortable, they might as well stay at home.

Compliance is only ever the departure point for best practice. The key to a successful return to the office is to know why you are doing it in the first place. It’s a tough message after a year of upheaval, but there’s no 'just going back'.

Best practice

The leadership challenge is to maintain a sense of connection and shared work effort, while also engaging people with a new way of working.

We are advised to keep two meters apart if possible and one meter apart as a minimum. HSE guidance tells us that sitting alongside each other is preferable to sitting facing each other.

One-to-one meetings are going to be the order of the day; full team meetings are most likely off the cards for some months to come, unless large meeting rooms are available.

After the traumas of the pandemic, it makes a great deal of sense to reconnect one-to-one. It offers an opportunity for colleagues to feel listened to, have their experience recognised and feel welcomed back into the work space in a positive way.

Ensuring inclusivity

Assuming rapport has been re-established, how do inclusive team conversations work when some people are in person and some are online? It will be tempting for those in the room to hold the floor, especially if they are senior.

Setting expectations in advance and starting as you mean to go on will be important. If, in your first hybrid meeting, no one online gets to speak, then the die will be cast and it will take a vast amount of effort to reset expectation. 

Again, human-centred leadership skills are at a premium when navigating this new territory. If out of sight is out of mind, the risk is the contribution of some colleagues will be repeatedly missed.

A unique opportunity

Stepping back into a familiar space need not mean reverting to old habits. The moment for embracing new ways of working will be brief and precious. It deserves significant preparation. Your firm may not see a better opportunity to change the emotional work space for many years.

Perhaps the most important question to ask is, how can we make people feel safe? The answer is likely to be more than a matter of logistics.

People feel safe when they know they can speak up about concerns and when they know their contribution is valued; then they know their colleagues have got their back.

Creating that level of emotional and psychological safety will reap huge rewards as we continue through this age of digital disruption. As ever, compliance will be the start of something much more significant.

Nicola Jones is managing director of Athena Professional athenaprofessional.co.uk

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