6 Ways the Office Experience Will Change Post-COVID, According to a Workplace Anthropologist

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Even if COVID-19 is temporary, one thing’s for sure: It has permanently changed office culture as we know it. The question then becomes, how will companies pivot their work force? We checked in with Claire Rowell, a workplace anthropologist who has worked for brands like WeWork to assess how human experience informs physical (and now digital) design. Here, her predictions for new-world office life.

1. Companies Will Be a Lot More Intentional About Their Real Estate

Rowell is clear: The way many folks are working from home right now is not the vision of modern work. (Unreliable internet? Health concerns? Zero childcare? No, thank you!) Instead, she explains that the pandemic is accelerating a work-from-anywhere movement that will thrive in the future. And while the physical office has historically been a “must-have,” Rowell says it’s now becoming a “nice-to-have”. “The office has always been a legacy asset, but we haven’t thought much about how it’s actually being used,” she explains. “When we get to the other side of this, we might no longer be striving for a one-size fits all approach.”

Instead, Rowell thinks we’ll see a decrease in the size of offices and a push toward a network of spaces that different people rotate through. “This space is for brainstorms and meetings; this space is for employee and manager development. Then, a lot of those other tasks that the office really wasn’t supporting, like head’s down work or phone calls, can move to other environments, like a home office.”

2. The Office Manager Will Take on a More Critical Role

The office manager used to be responsible for ordering printer paper and figuring out seating arrangements. That job description is about to shift. “We’re going to see more ‘experience managers’ that are responsible for a seamless employee experience on and offline,” she says. “The ideal would be to create a role that combines HR, office experience and employee communication, so that this person controls all the touch points that need to be well-integrated when you don’t have a physical space.”

3. Employers Will Have to Let Go of ‘Helicopter-Style’ Management

As companies lose resources and managers feel an increasing pressure to perform, many are leaning into a “helicopter-style” of management, checking in on their reports constantly. But that can only last for so long, says Rowell. “Autonomy is a major factor of remote work. A lot of younger people are using it to become more aware of their purpose, their agency and how they want to get their work done. You used to come into an office, someone tells you where to sit and you’re strapped to that desk all day. Now, you have the chance to have a conversation with your manager about your work style, when you feel energized, when you don’t. That openness and trust can only be a good thing.”

4. We’ll Need to Counter Zoom Fatigue

Initially, companies were using Zoom to replicate in-office rituals online. But now that many employees report feeling “Zoomed out,” the second phase will require getting creative with digital tools to keep teams aligned. Rowell points to optional social events like team-based cooking classes, or 30-minute meet-and-greets where everyone (from the CEO to the customer sales rep) answers a single ice breaker-type question. (For example, “What’s the last great movie or TV show you watched?”)

5. Mentorship Will Change

Mentorship can really suffer in remote environments. “Younger employees in particular benefit from those informal social connections,” says Rowell. “Companies have to figure out: ‘How does mentorship happen in a digital world? There’s no more gathering around the ping pong table or Kombucha on tap, so what can companies do to offset that?” says Rowell. “My hope is that there’s a bigger emphasis (and allocation of funding) put toward manager and employee development.”

6. Our Home Offices May Get an Upgrade

Rowell also touts the idea of a stipend for working from home. “In the past, a facilities manager picked your desk and that was where you sat, but if companies no longer have to spend that money at the office, perhaps that $600 could go direct to the employee so they can set up a standing desk or laptop platform at home.”

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Rachel Bowie is Senior Director of Special Projects & Royals at PureWow, where she covers parenting, fashion, wellness and money in addition to overseeing initiatives within...