It’s been about two months since we started working from home and many of us are ready to return to our offices now. But as employees and organizations gear up to head back to the office after the lockdown, the question is: What will the post-COVID workplace look like?

Media reports say the office you left is no longer going to be the one you return to,  whether it’s the office architecture or the way you interact with one another. Open-plan interactive offices aimed at fostering collaboration and communication between employees will undergo a radical change as a result of social distancing regulations. Organizations will not only have to re-design offices and working environments but also adopt new ways of working in the post-COVID workplace.

So what will the office of the future look like? And how can organizations monitor the safety of employees? Is it going to be like airport check-ins with heavy security and surveillance protocols? Will we be wearing masks in the office? How often will we be conducting temperature and health checks? Will our movements into elevators and other communal areas be controlled? And what will the new seating plan be? Will we be seated with plexiglass barriers between us?

Nobody knows yet! But these are some of the questions organizations will address as they decide on post-COVID office makeovers. The government has announced some lockdown relaxations and allowed private offices to function at 33% of the workforce at the moment. But offices will only return to full capacity in a slow and staggered manner. So, it might be a while before we can get back to seeing all our colleagues again, having a chai/paratha break, or looking up from the laptop for an animated discussion with a colleague. 

But will these simple yet meaningful rituals be the same when we do eventually get back to work? Probably not. It is still not clear how we will connect, collaborate, and cooperate effectively in the post-COVID workspace. But we do know that the process of reintegration will be slow and go through several stages. In many ways, it will follow Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg’s four stages of culture shock that people experience when they interact with a new culture. Going back to the post-COVID office will be a culture shock for many because it will probably bear little resemblance to the office of their past. 

First, is the "honeymoon stage" characterized by positive emotions and excitement at returning to the office. Employees may experience feelings of elation at their lives being back on track, and enthusiasm and joy at meeting their colleagues again. However, this stage is short-lived.

The second phase is called the “crisis” or “negotiation” phase. This is when employees are likely to get a bit stressed about the new culture. One may reminisce about life before COVID-19 or even the work-from-home experience. The pressure to adapt to new methods of communication, practical difficulties, and disruptions in workplace routines may lead to creeping feelings of frustration, anxiety, and anger. This stage is also characterized by loneliness and hopelessness. Support from the community and organization can help overcome these feelings and see the light at the end of the tunnel.

During the third phase, known as the “recovery” phase, accelerating your transition and adjustment is the priority. One begins to grow accustomed to the new culture and develops new routines. The culture begins to make sense, and negative reactions and responses decrease. You also know what to expect in most situations and the culture no longer feels new.

The final phase is known as the “adjustment" or “adaptation” phase. Organizations will now reboot with adapted business models in line with changes in customer behavior, economic conditions, and social changes. New rules and norms will be formed; offices will allow employees to work from home more often.

But at the end of the day, even though some people may feel overwhelmed with the new rules and systems, you can expect a silver lining. After all, you will be back with your colleagues. And it will still be fun.

Nainika Seth is an Associate with the Learning Impact Team at Harappa Education. She is a postgraduate in Sport and Exercise Psychology from Loughborough University, United Kingdom. She enjoys baking and photography. 

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