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Coronavirus is going to tear your office in two

As offices start to open after lockdown, one half of the workforce will be in social distancing dystopia, and the other isolated and stuck online

Three weeks ago, Lucy Chatburn’s team opened the doors to their office near Bologna, Italy, for the first time since lockdown started. The software business where she works is among the thousands slowly reopening and staggering employee time in the workplace.

“We have a spreadsheet where you sign up which days you want to go in. They [management] have worked out how many people it’s safe to have in the office and once the limit is reached for that day it’s full,” she explains. Returning to a socially distanced office and wearing masks means there still “aren’t as many casual conversations”.

Italy, which is further along the recovery process, can provide a glimpse of the future that awaits the thousands of UK workers that have spent the last two months working on dining room tables or kitchen counters in their own homes. Over half of workers want to return to the office by the end of June, but are concerned about their safety when they return, according to a survey of 7,000 people conducted by job board Totaljobs.

In the UK, most companies that want their employees to return to the office will have to reduce capacity on each floor by between 30 to 50 per cent to respect social distancing rules, according to a report by Architect’s Journal. Those that return will find the experience more than a little strange: one-way hallway systems, no face-to-face meetings, blocked-off tea stations and canteens, and queues for the loos as companies follow government guidance. Those stuck at home by choice or design, will wonder what they’re missing in the office, and how much damage the lack of casual interaction with their colleagues and managers could have to their careers.

This is a tale of two offices: one in social distancing dystopia, and the other isolated and stuck online.

Splitting the office in two (even if it’s done in an arbitrary way) can cause intergroup dynamics, automatic psychological processes that lead us to favour our group and denigrate the other, says Amy Edmondson, Novartis professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School. “We think of ourselves as thoughtful people, and it would be silly to like someone less who’s now working at home when I’m back in the office or vice versa,” she says. But it turns out this happens with some regularity. We can’t help the sense that those who aren’t here, they’re less committed or they’re less important.”

People who return to offices are going to have an advantage. It’s always easier to pop your head round an office door or chat to colleagues about ideas in person than sending an email or setting up a video conference, Edmondson says. “Even though we’re all now more skilled in video meetings, we’re getting sick of them. That means that logistically, those who are physically present will just have a kind of privileged access or an advantage over those who are not.”

The same people who were at risk of being excluded from inside conversations and cliques before coronavirus are the last on the list to return to the office. Anyone who needs to work flexibly, has childcare needs or is a primary caregiver, anyone who is vulnerable to coronavirus or has a disability that would make taking public transport a logistical nightmare, are less likely to return to the office.

When office workers were sent home en masse in March, they all experienced a shock to the system together. Similar to people moving to another country for work, they had to figure out how to use technology that they were not familiar with and cope with the stress of a new environment.

Our reaction to the pandemic is similar to a classic cross cultural adjustment curve that a person experiences when going abroad for work, says Hal Gregersen, senior lecturer at MIT and author of Questions are the Answer. First there is an initial honeymoon period, followed by depression and wanting to go home between month three and month nine.

“If they just hang in there, they’ll be able to get out of this adjustment low into performance highs,” he says. “We’re now maybe four to five months into this cross-cultural adjustment in the country of coronavirus. Instead of going on an international assignment, we went to a work at home assignment. The process is the same.”

Those that return to the office now will go through an adjustment similar to that of people returning to their home office after spending time working abroad. “Most people think ‘I’m going to go back and it’s all going to be like it once was’,” he says. “They’ll finally realise things like, I have a lot less autonomy during my work here than I ever had at home. I’m not sure I like that. And that’s when you start sliding down that performance and emotional adjustment curves.”

A partial return to work could unintentionally promote the “out of sight, out of mind” feeling already prevalent in some teams towards people working abroad or remotely. “Without a mentor who’s vigilant about awareness of this person’s work and interactions and contributions, they will easily get left out of promotion opportunities,” says Gregerson.

To avoid this, companies might feel that the only way to return to the office is on a voluntary basis: let the people decide for themselves who wants to come in depending on personal choice. That’s still wrong, says Thomas Erikson, author of Surrounded by Idiots. The people who end up in the office in person will be more likely to make decisions — and they might be precisely the wrong people to do so.

There are four broad types of personalities in every organisation, he says: dominant, inspiring, stable and analytical. Those with more outgoing traits are more likely to want to return to the group dynamic of the office, and if they do, the effect could be “horrific”, he says.

“It’s going to be a disaster, total chaos,” Erikson says. The decision-making system could be skewed too far towards emotional decisions and people questioning whether a course of action is right or not, or the other way where people would want to take action regardless of others’ feelings, he explains. “You have to have all the types of people in there all the time.”

Erikson recommends an egalitarian approach: don’t exclude anybody. Create a spreadsheet of people and make a system that ensures the physical office space is shared equally by everyone. “Even if they say ‘No, I’m fine. Don’t make me come there [to the office]’, bring them in anyway. And those who say I have to be there all the time, you have to send them back home sometimes as well. Because everybody has to take responsibility. It is what it is. And everybody has to be grownups.”

On paper this makes sense, but it’s unlikely that companies will want to pick a fight with their employees until childcare provisions and government make it safe for everyone to return. For now, all they can do is encourage them to want to come back.

Ciaran Scullion, a logistics manager at Belfast-headquartered fit-out specialist Portview, has quietly spent the last few weeks preparing for a return to the office. Walking around the empty corridors, Scullion concedes that he has enjoyed having a chat with the other two coworkers manning the space. “It’s quite lonely but at least you have that interaction,” he says.

Most of the company’s office spaces are shared by two to three people at a time, who could work on a rota basis. “All those ideas are being discussed. We could operate at 50-60 per cent [capacity]. We are trying to give people the confidence to be happy to come back in. That has become an issue in the area where the office is.” He says the team has even turned taps on for up to ten minutes a day following fears that coronavirus may be in the water supply. Outside, he has prepared picnic tables for people to sit at a safe distance and have their lunch together on sunny days.

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