During the pandemic, people enjoyed not having to commute long distances. Although some people are starting to return to physical workplaces, research suggests that pandemic measures have permanently changed attitudes and expectations. Young people, in particular, want to maintain at least some remote working.
A survey of commuters in Australia and New Zealand found that attitudes towards public transport became more negative during the pandemic, and have not fully recovered. As the researchers write: "Arguably, the COVID-19 pandemic has been profoundly disruptive to many commuters and may offer a unique opportunity to proactively shape new transport habits."
We expect to see the resistance to commuting, particularly longer commutes, continue into next year and beyond. Commute-avoidance will lead to the rise of the 15-minute work-life model – a new reality where people choose to work, live and play within 15 minutes of their home.
This "15-minute city" concept was first envisaged by Sorbonne professor Carlos Moreno and has already become part of Paris’s infrastructure plan. The idea is that urban residents can carry out six essential functions within a 15-minute walk or cycle from their home: including living, working, shopping, healthcare, education and entertainment. Other cities such as Shanghai, Singapore and Melbourne are also trying similar models that include elements of the 15-minute city.
Hybrid working and productivity
It’s now widely accepted that we can be productive from anywhere, and workers who no longer wish to commute each day will demand that their employers incorporate hybrid working as part of their default working arrangement. But that doesn’t necessarily result in everyone working from home.
We’ll also see a rise of satellite offices; smaller offices located in suburban areas that provide an additional workspace to the central CBD location in a "hub-and-spoke" model.
CBD offices will predominantly be frequented by those who live in and around the city, with other employees working across a mix of home offices, satellite offices, and co-working spaces, all connected and working as a team through simple and easy to use collaborative technologies.
McKinsey suggests that some organisations may ditch CBD headquarters altogether for suburban campuses. A question still remains over co-working spaces: the pandemic has not been conducive to the concept of hotdesking and/or working alongside strangers, and many co-working businesses have struggled or folded in the last two years.
Going forward, as the pandemic eases and hygiene features are better embedded into workplaces, co-working spaces may become a popular option once again, particularly located in suburban areas as a part-time or full-time option for remote workers.
Ensuring workplace equity
One of the biggest challenges facing businesses and people managers will be ensuring that employees are treated equally and fairly, no matter where they are working from. It’s apparent that many hybrid meetings - where some staff are grouped together, physically present, with others videoconferencing in, aren’t fairly balanced. It’s harder for the remote workers to fully participate.
There’s a real danger that people become "out of sight, out of mind" if they’re working away from the office. Everyone needs to feel fully seen, heard and valued. To enable this will require a rethink and rework of traditional systems.
Organisations must provide the tools needed to ensure that remote workers are connected and able to thrive. This ranges from collaboration platforms to professional-grade video conferencing hardware.
The structure and location of meetings may also need to change. It may be fairer and more productive to have everyone conferencing into certain meetings, even if some people are in the physical workspace. Creating telepresence suites in satellite offices, or renting telepresence suits are other possible options.
As McKinsey notes, previous meetings that involved a real-time brainstorming session and a physical whiteboard may instead become "a period of asynchronous brainstorming on a digital channel and incorporating ideas from across the organisation, followed by a multi-hour period of debate and refinement on an open videoconference."
Managing the changes and complexities of the post-COVID workplace will be challenging. But organisations who embrace change, remain agile and open to new ways of working and the benefits they bring, will enjoy greater resilience and productivity.