Business & finance professor, digital lawyer, restaurant owner, board member & traveler.
The crisis has turned the corporate world upside down. Most office workers — including me — have been working from home for more than two months.
It was strange at first. The lack of human contact. New tools to learn. The lack of any settled procedures or routines. Then there was a period of acceptance. We learned to adapt to the work-from-home experience. And with the lockdown being eased in many places, we are entering the return-to-the-office phase.
We will all be going back to the office soon.
But it seems unlikely that things will go back to normal again. We are going back to a new reality. Our workplace will be very different. What can we do to prepare for the big return?
Several big forces are shaping the future.
New Economic Pressures. The COVID-19 crisis has been the biggest shock to the global economic system in our lifetimes. Every business — every organization — has to deal with a new business reality and changed consumer demands and behavior.
Health Rules. Social distancing and other safety protocols aren’t going anywhere soon. Companies are already introducing rotation plans and one-way walking lanes in the office.
The WFH Experience. The forced adoption of new technology meant that people acquired new skills and knowledge while working from home. We realized that face-to-face meetings are often overrated, and videoconferences are simply more efficient and work much better.
The online experience provided organizations with new insights. This new knowledge will be used in redefining the “office.” It’s too early to make any predictions, but I suspect that we will see more and more organizations reassessing their office buildings. Is it really necessary to “centralize” work and encourage workers to live close to the office?
A New Mood. A new mood of heightened anxiety is going to be with us for some time. Most of us can’t wait to go back to the workplace again, but not at all costs. Going to and being in the office must be safe (which is a challenge with crowded public transport and the open office spaces of today).
We all must rethink and redefine the “office” — what it means to go to and be in the office. Everyone needs to start preparing now for the “return.”
Here, and I must admit surprisingly, my experience in the academic world might prove useful.
A “nine-to-five” life never attracted me. Having a daily routine that would continually repeat itself just wasn’t me. Perhaps this was the reason why I had a hard time figuring out what to do after high school. I couldn’t make up my mind.
After a couple of years doing all kind of other things, I finally decided to go to law school. I loved the prospect of engineering and negotiating business deals.
It was the right choice. I enjoyed the classes, but when graduation was approaching, the uncomfortable feeling of being in an office most of the time started to make me nervous again.
You can imagine the relief when the university asked me to become a researcher. I gladly accepted but didn’t want to close the door to corporate practice immediately. Fortunately, I was able to combine the research position with a job in the legal department of a big company. It enabled me to combine the best of both worlds.
I’ve been doing this for over twenty years, and I’ve been lucky enough to build a career around both positions. Academic and corporate.
I like both my jobs. They complement each other. The corporate world is faster, more dynamic, more efficient, and offers higher wages. But there is one thing I find extremely attractive about the academic world: The sense of freedom.
And this experience of balancing two worlds and managing the freedom of an academic life proves useful for preparing for the return to the office. Undoubtedly, there will be a lot of uncertainty. Most organizations will be in a state of permanent upheaval. But where there is uncertainty there is also more freedom.
In short, to navigate the new reality you need to “go back” with a fresh mindset. Here are 5 suggestions how to do this:
Impress with ideas, not time at your desk
It isn’t uncommon in the corporate world that people try to impress others by mentioning the hours they are in the office.
“I was in at 7 AM today.”
“I am feeling a bit tired– I was here until 9 PM last night.”
We all know the comments that are casually dropped into short conversations at the coffee corner.
Arriving late and leaving early are often accompanied by sarcastic remarks designed to make others feel bad. “I saw your Facebook post yesterday. That restaurant looked nice.”
But being in the office doesn’t say anything about productivity or performance. It never did. This is clear in a university environment. The emphasis on teaching and research output forces you to work remotely, from home, or any other place that improves productivity. I still remember what my Ph.D. supervisor told me: “If you want to finish your work, don’t get distracted by office politics. I’d rather have you work from home and get things done.”
I don’t say that having an office isn’t essential at a university. But the office is mainly used for quick social interaction with students, colleagues, and other co-workers — not to show off by sitting there while the work could be better done elsewhere.
There is no “office” pressure. You impress with ideas and output. Performance is the only thing that matters.
Question your routines and be smarter with your time
Time isn’t a researcher’s best friend. And wasting it makes him/her extremely nervous. So, if we can avoid the commute with traffic jams and other unproductive meetings, we are happy.
Of course, as in any organization, this isn’t always possible. But in my experience, I’ve noticed that the most successful and productive researchers have found a way to get smart with time. They have found the right balance between going to the office and productivity. For some this means waking up early. Others work late at night.
But they all have one thing in common. They understand that being forced to follow a particular routine kills creativity.
It’s all about time-management. You should take charge of your own calendar and also reserve time to learn, think, experiment, reassess, and produce.
Surround yourself with people who matter to you
Collaborating with colleagues and other people is important. It’s one of the main reasons why we have corporations in the first place. In such an environment, it is difficult to stop worrying about what your peers think. That is hard to change.
But peer pressure shouldn’t dictate your work life. This is one of the hard lessons I learned as a researcher. You can never impress everybody. There are and there will always be people who don’t like you or your work.
Don’t get distracted but use your peers to learn and improve. This means thinking about who you surround yourself with at work. How and when you engage. The days that we are all in the office are over.
Social distancing norms have put a halt on that practice. In short: It is important to improve your people management skills.
This sounds so much easier than it is. Not being in the office may feel like “skipping classes.” It can make you feel nervous. It may give you the feeling that you may miss out on something.
I had this feeling when I started to work on my research from home, but that feeling quickly disappeared when my productivity level skyrocketed. I was busy and felt lots of pressure (deadlines, teaching obligations, presentations).
But having the freedom to organize my work in the way I wanted, not only helped increase my productivity. It also made me so much happier.
Find motivation and energy from unexpected places
The life of a researcher can be lonely. You always have to look for an edge to motivate yourself. The Internet, streaming services, and social media can help here.
Following influencers, reading blogs, listening to podcasts give me inspiration. Usually, the smallest things encourage me to move forward. But consuming content isn’t sufficient. New ideas, energy, and inspiration only really come from creating my own content.
Since all of us have some role to play in redefining the office, we all have to become content-creators. And here I don’t mean that we all should aspire to become influencers. The smallest social media posts can make a significant contribution to a better office life.
Join the conversation. Define the future.