The term “new normal” has taken on new meaning.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it described our unprecedented, physically distanced reality. But now we can visualise a post-pandemic future, and the “new normal” refers to the long-term strategies that will allow organizations to thrive in a fundamentally transformed world.
Like it or not, history has been split into pre- and post-pandemic times, with indelible differences between the two. In the wake of this split, the return to work strategies that Canadian companies adopt today will not only see them through the final months of this crisis, but set them up for success in a world where robust health and safety measures are a priority.
In 2020, as public health and safety measures were standardized across industries, businesses began adapting workplaces for essential staff. What has followed has been an economic balancing act of tentative reopenings tempered by recursive periods of lockdown. That’s just now starting to change.
Through late spring and early summer 2021, we can expect to transition to sustained but still intermittent reopenings of the economy. In the face of this transition, businesses need to have flexible return to work strategies in place to accommodate employees with options that match their comfort levels—whether that’s returning to the office, continuing to work remotely or embracing a hybrid approach.
COVID-19 will also persist. While vaccines are effective, they are not enough to eradicate the virus outright; and while 82% of Canadians are willing to be vaccinated, 12% are averse and 7% are unsure. Combine that with the lingering uncertainty around vaccinating children, as well as the emergence of new coronavirus variants, and you can be sure public health containment measures will be prolonged for as long as we can reasonably predict.
Our survey statistics provide a compelling picture of how workplaces have transformed. Pre-pandemic, Canadians worked primarily outside of their homes, with 82% of the workforce on-site at their place of employment, and in the last year that number plummeted to 27%. Post-pandemic, we expect to see a levelling out of this trend, with almost equal distribution between on-site, remote and blended approaches to work.
This shift impacts individuals in very different ways. In today’s companies, there are four distinct profiles that describe employees, and not all of them can pivot to virtual work so easily.
As organizations have implemented health and safety measures to bring people back to the office, the sentries and collaborators have been the top priority. But as we move forward, companies will soon be able to support a more diverse mix of employees.
While we believe these four personas are a helpful simplification, there are ultimately six ways of working that businesses need to consider—and get better at—as they rethink their operations.
Looking at these six working priorities, physical workspaces are still vital for most businesses, albeit in a reduced capacity. So how can we make them safe and sustainable?
To answer that question, we need to examine the four broad workplace scenarios being deployed across industries today.
The status quo model maintains the existing virtual systems that were implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. While it’s a workable solution for some companies, it negatively impacts work that involves collaboration, community and coaching.
Social distancing continues the systems that some companies introduced as the pandemic progressed, such as limiting workplace capacity, implementing physical barriers and mandating daily health attestations. However, it also isn’t conducive to collaboration and community.
Vaccination passports is a newer scenario in which employees, customers and visitors are allowed on-site with proof of immunization. This has political and reputational repercussions, as some workers will refuse vaccines and others believe it's an infringement on privacy.
Workplace bubbles, the fourth scenario, has been taken up by industries such as professional sports, construction, manufacturing and mining, which must take place in person and on-site. However, other sectors are finding use cases for these self-contained cohorts, whether across whole offices or within specific business units.
The workplace bubble model varies depending on a range of factors, including the maturity and availability of rapid testing, contract tracing initiatives and an assessment of the health & safety risks involved. A mature workplace bubble takes into account criteria such as the frequency of interaction and physical proximity between individuals, the size of the cohort, the vulnerability of staff, cross-functional interactions between teams and exposure to the public.
With the right tools and methodologies, a strategic partner can help companies put workplace systems in place that will enable all ways of working—and empower every role—in both the short and long term. At PwC, we’ve been working with both public and private organizations to address this challenge. And as the public sector is ahead of the curve on some of these measures, the lessons learned here will be crucial in helping the private sector identify the return work strategies that work best for each organization.
Throughout 2020, trying to predict the future only brought fears of further lockdowns, and few options beyond distributed work. That has changed dramatically, and now it’s possible to picture a future in which the pandemic is functionally over. The right tools, practices and protocols will let Canadian companies arrive safely at a post-pandemic future while also building long-term resilience into their business models.
Canadian businesses have endured a prolonged period of dynamic and unpredictable change. Now, at last, we know what needs to be done.
Curious to see which workplace scenario makes the most sense for your business? Get in touch.