RIYADH: To say that the COVID-19 crisis has been a disruptor of working styles is an understatement. Virtually every job was impacted in some way, with many if not most employees shifting from office-based routines to work from home (WFH).
But now that the COVID situation is (hopefully) past its peak, are these changes permanent or will we return to the status quo ante?
A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute — The future of work after COVID-19 — quantified the required physical proximity of workers in 10 different types of “worker arena.”
With a score of 100 equaling “total proximity,” the medical care profession came top at 87 and farming and construction was least proximate at 54. Computer-based office work — the largest work arena in advanced economies such as Saudi Arabia — is at 68, meaning that about one-third of this type of work can be completed remotely.
The McKinsey report concludes that 20-25 percent of the advanced economy workforce could potentially work from home three-to-five days a week. While that is unlikely to happen, the report found that employers in developed economies plan to reduce their post-COVID office space by an average of 30 percent. What does this mean for workers in the Kingdom? Kholoud Al-Mohammadi, an investment manager at FII Institute (Riyadh), told Arab News that “the pandemic forced a rapid uptake of online and app-based management and communication platforms.”
Employees had to quickly learn how to substitute Zoom or Microsoft Teams meetings for in-office interactions and presentations. The learning curve was steep but ultimately successful, with the result that most businesses were only nominally impacted by the pandemic in terms of staff productivity. That shift to online platforms is certainly here to stay.
WFH is more a community and culture initiative that would give somebody more flexibility within their role.
But there is still a human need for physical interaction: The informal conversations, face-to-face contact and birthday celebrations that bring a workspace to life. As such, most employees will probably return to their physical office or have done so already, but often with an option of at least part-time WFH. “WFH is more a community and culture initiative that would give somebody more flexibility within their role,” Ahmed Bondagji, HR director (KSA) at L’Oréal told Arab News. “So eventually we’re all going to come back to the office, but it would be nice to have one optional day at home per week.”
The working environment is also likely to see some changes. The pandemic has raised awareness about hygiene and personal space, and this — along with mandatory health and safety standards — must be key when planning the post-COVID office. Some companies — led by US tech giants such as Salesforce and Spotify — have taken advantage of the temporary WFH situation to completely overhaul their interiors with these factors in mind.
An office redesign allows for creative use of space. Whereas cubicles were previously “corralled,” they can now be more spread out, with greater utilization of corners — giving workers a greater sense of individual territory. The “hot desk” concept can also be applied, for example by allocating one section of an open office to a department, with members of that department using any available desk.
Bondagji also sees the co-working space as at least a medium-term solution in the post-COVID world.
“It’s a very agile option that a lot of non-HQ or remote locations have shifted to,” he said. “We can use the co-working office for a meeting, or contract for a certain number of hours, and the area is continually sanitized and fully within COVID precautions.”
While most organizations will not fully shift to co-working spaces, they do offer a flexible and often cheaper alternative to the permanent office.
The key takeaway here is that both employees and employers need to remain open-minded about their arrangements. From the worker’s point of view, employers must be more proactive regarding staff wellbeing and WFH should be at least a part-time option; and from the employer’s perspective, staff need to adapt to change — in terms of both working methods and physical locations.
The COVID-19 crisis may be easing, but occasional disruption is a fact of life, and everybody has to live with that.