The changing definition of the workplace

Ever since my first teenage jobs (including a gig detasseling corn - a story for another day), work had always been associated with a particular physical space.

And for the next 30 years, going to work meant getting myself ready and out the door each morning to commute to the office. While I was frequently on the road consulting with employers, conducting training or attending conferences and networking events, most of my work was tied to my organization's headquarters. Being at work had a predictable cadence and flow.

That was until March 2020, of course, when most white-collar workers were ordered to stay at home. While packing up our laptops and files, most of us thought our work-from-home stint would be a short one and we'd be back to normal after a few weeks.

Two years later, we know there will never be a back-to-normal and we're still trying to come to terms with the new, ever-evolving normal. This applies to the workplace as well.

Employers have been announcing return-to-the-office plans since summer 2020, and very few of them were able to stick to their initial dates or policies. Even companies that made very public proclamations of their intensions to return to pre-pandemic work practices had to rescind their plans and modify their approach.


There are a host of well-publicized reasons: employee health and safety, caregiving obligations, worker morale, productivity and turnover. But most importantly, employees have let their voices be heard, and it's clear that many are not interested in returning to the office on a traditional 40-hours-a-week schedule. The majority of office professionals now prefer a hybrid schedule, coming to the office a few days a week to meet and collaborate on plans, work on projects and coordinate with co-workers.

After proving that remote work actually works, employees want to continue to have the freedom to perform their jobs remotely as much as possible.

So what now becomes of our pre-pandemic office spaces, designed to host our full complement of employees for the entire workweek? Some have made the bold and swift move to sell or sublease their physical space and go fully remote.

Others have downsized to a smaller footprint where their team members can "hotel" in open cubes or offices but still include a conference space to convene with customers and staff. Some organizations are intentionally waiting to see what the future holds for their business while others are stuck in a holding pattern because of long-term leases or an unwillingness to sell given current market conditions. For many leaders, this question of "brick and mortar" is causing significant stress during an already challenging time.

For those in favor of keeping a designated workspace, experts have suggested that the workplace should become more of a clubhouse or gathering space for employees to connect, as opposed to performing individual tasks. In this new model, most private offices and cubes would be replaced by collaboration space - small conference rooms and social areas outfitted with the technology to facilitate communication and group work.

Most workers would do their heads-down work somewhere other than the workplace.

As an adviser and consultant to the employer community, my crystal ball has been called into risky action frequently over the past two years, but what does seem crystal clear is that the definition of the workplace is no longer about the place.

• Mary Lynn Fayoumi is president & CEO of HR Source.

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