Out of Office | Brunswick

Out of Office

Brunswick analysis offers four data-driven scenarios of how we might return to work—and ways companies can start preparing for each.

The last three months have seen record volumes of Google searches including a single word: “normal.” When it comes to our ways of working, those searching for a return to normality are unlikely to find it any time soon—if ever.

Nick Howard leads Brunswick’s employee engagement offer in Europe, while Robert Moran heads Brunswick Insight, the firm’s global public opinion, market research and analytics function. Together, the pair combed more than 30 recently published “Future of Work” reports and global public-opinion polls to understand what other experts are forecasting, how employees are feeling, and what those trends will mean for how we come together and work. Their analysis concluded that offices are likely to be forever changed, and the shape of that change will hinge on two factors: the rate of post-COVID economic recovery, and changing social attitudes to remote and flexible working.

On that sliding scale, they plotted four possible outcomes: Companies and employees will want to exploit the remote work trend to cut costs; skilled employees will demand more flexibility and exhibit greater mobility between companies; businesses will make complex arrangements for intermittent office work and in-person get-togethers; and there will be a return to a less-formal office.

Of course, broad economic and societal forces will affect businesses differently. Nor are all businesses going to respond to those forces in the same manner. That discrepancy can already be seen in the choices companies make today—which, of course, influence the options available to them in the future. Of the issues demanding leaders’ most urgent attention and careful thought at the moment, five in particular stand out:

Adapting physical offices. These will have to change to meet government health criteria and other post-pandemic requirements. Whether it’s the need for physical distancing from colleagues, signage reminding of new hygiene measures, or the inability to share office supplies that someone else has touched, many of us will need to live with these measures, at least in the short term.

Cybersecurity concerns. Cyber criminals have become more active during the pandemic—is it possible for employees to be as vigilant in the ongoing defense against hackers and fraudsters when they’re working from the comfort of their homes? There’s a clear attitudinal and behavioral disconnect between the formal office and the more relaxed home environment.

Making better use of technology. We’ve all discovered the benefits and disadvantages of video calls and many businesses surprised themselves by the speed with which they and their employees got to grips with the technology. The question now is how to use this and other tech to do more than simply replicate physical meetings. How can it help us be more collaborative and creative? And how can it help us manage the business more efficiently?

Considering cultural losses. If one of the roles of the modern office is to create a sense of togetherness and shared cultural norms, is there a risk these will be diluted when we work remotely? How will the feelings of an office worker—and their connection to the business, its purpose and brand—differ from those of a remote worker? How will this affect who creates the most value for the business and its customers?

Renewed focus on well-being. COVID-19 has demonstrated that health, home and work are inextricably linked. The physical office may need to have more space devoted to health activities. And these will need to be replicated for people working remotely. Perhaps we’ll see a continuation of employer-provided online yoga classes. Practical advice for parents juggling work and childcare. Or financial and practical support for setting up healthy home offices.

Each of these issues carries inherent tensions that leaders have to manage today and be mindful of as they plan for the future. There are no easy trade-offs. Few choices are likely to please everyone. To highlight a few of the tensions:

Safety vs. efficiency: Will introducing safety measures such as social distancing and personal protective equipment hinder employees from doing their jobs effectively?

Synchronous vs. asynchronous: To what extent will businesses be able to harness the power of global teams sharing work 24 hours a day across time zones?

Direction vs. autonomy: Will remote workers need more direction than employees who work in the office? Can they be empowered to work with greater autonomy?

Office vs. home: Is it one or the other or will employees be expected to blend the two—and what are the practical guidelines that should be established for this?

Cost control vs. culture: Reduced office space may lower costs, but will that be offset by cultural dilution from dispersed, remote working—and how can that be managed?

Relational vs. transactional: Will remote working relationships become transactional, losing the benefits of personal relationships that can be built through face-to-face contact?

As they navigate these difficult choices, companies should also develop future scenarios with low, medium and high likelihoods. These need to be specific for each business, account for what they’ve learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what they’re hearing from employees, customers and other stakeholders. A starting point for most companies should involve these scenarios:

Working backwards from the high-likelihood column, businesses should ask: “Are we prepared for this? How can we benefit from it? What are the potential risks? What does it mean for our relationship with employees?” 

Such questions may be difficult to answer now, but  don't become any easier by pretending they don't exist.



Robert Moran, a Partner, leads Brunswick Insight, the firm’s global public opinion, market research and analytics function. He is based in Washington, DC.

Nick Howard is a Partner based in London who leads Brunswick’s employee engagement offer in Europe. 

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