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Workplaces will not be the same again when employees return from coronavirus lockdowns

Office workers wearing protective masks walk past the International Commerce Centre (ICC) in Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.

Paul Yeung | Bloomberg via Getty Images

Workplace dynamics will likely be transformed by the time everyone returns to the office again after coronavirus lockdown measures are lifted or eased, experts told CNBC.

“The office will not go away, but the need of the office space may reduce,” said Carol Wong, director and head of workplace delivery for Asia Pacific at global commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. ”People will always need physical space and they always want to meet face to face.”

Still, worries over hygiene will continue to top concerns as employees return to the workplace, and companies will need to take new measures to minimize the number of hand contact surfaces. Some of these steps include the introduction of infrared temperature checks as well as the use of facial recognition for identity verification, Wong added.

Wong is currently working with clients in China to bring employees back to the office. She said about 10,000 companies and nearly a million workers have returned to the office so far. The country, where the earliest cases of coronavirus were reported, has been closely watched as the world looks for clues on what easing of lockdown measures would look like, and how the reopening of economies could be.

Working from home

One of the most significant changes to the workplace since the pandemic, has been the shift of employees working from home as a result of social distancing measures.

“There will be a long-term adjustment in how we think about our location strategy … the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past,” Barclays CEO, Jes Staley, told reporters after the bank reported a fall in first-quarter profits.

His sentiments were echoed by Mondelez CEO, Dirk Van de Put. “We are looking for efficiencies as it relates to our ways of working since the crisis has showed that we can work in different ways and maybe we don’t need all the offices that we currently have around the world,” Van de Put said at a recent earnings call.

A Gartner survey of 317 chief financial officers and finance leaders on March 30 also showed about 3 in 4 intend to “move at least 5% of their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions post-COVID 19.”

The office will not go away, but the need of the office space may reduce.

Carol Wong

Director and Head of workplace delivery for Asia Pacific, Cushman & Wakefield

“It’s going to be very difficult to take the office out of people’s lives,” Gopal Sarma, a partner at consulting group Bain & Company, told CNBC. 

The “mass migration” toward working from home may not become the new norm, Sarma said, but there will be a definitive shift toward working from lower cost locations going forward.

“Geography is history,” Sarma said, as businesses recognize that people can now work out of a lower cost location instead of paying a premium for an office space in the central business district.

One potential glimpse of this future may be seen in Singapore, where authorities have taken steps in recent years to build satellite locations for workers that are closer to their homes in the suburbs.

“I think Singapore has been doing great in the last few years where the (Urban Redevelopment Authority) has decentralized the (central business district) area,” said Wong, adding that the adoption of such satellite communities is expected to accelerate in the wake of the pandemic.

Furthermore, in places such as Hong Kong, people may actually desire to return to the office as the working from home environment may not always be conducive, Wong from Cushman & Wakefield added.

Implications for people management

Beyond changes in the physical spaces of the office, businesses will also need to adapt their human resources policies as the world adjusts to a new norm.

“At many organisations, HR teams, policies, and programs are not prepared for the realities of the recovery,” Adrian Ole, executive director of human capital consulting at Deloitte Southeast Asia, told CNBC in an email.

“Some longstanding HR policies must be revised to account for the new realities of flexible ways of working, technology use, and health restrictions,” Ole said. “For example, employers may wish to consider employee allowances that support the cost of working from home.”

At many organisations, HR teams, policies, and programs are not prepared for the realities of the recovery.

Adrian Ole

Executive director of human capital consulting, Deloitte Southeast Asia

Beyond that, Wong from Cushman & Wakefield also said the management of a remote community of workers will be a “challenge” for firms, as the building of culture and connections from afar may require new roles such as community managers.

As more and more people work remotely, one of the biggest headwinds will be in measuring the productivity of employees, she said, adding that this was “primarily driven” by a lack of trust.

“The single biggest notion is that you need to see people to make sure that they’re working,” said Bain’s Sarma.

It’s not just organizations that have seen the efficacy of working from home, Sarma said, and businesses will have to adapt to the “power of controlling” flexibility in work.

“If organizations do not respect and recognize this, they will die,” he warned.

– CNBC’s Abigail Ng contributed to this report.


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