Businesses are grappling with the future of workplaces as most countries resume business as normal – marking the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a real opportunity right now for smart employers to learn from the events of the last two years and change the workplace model for good, with happier, more productive staff delivering higher quality work.

The traditional model of white-collar work was of course already under attack before the pandemic turned everything upside down.

A combination of demographics and evolving technology made it possible to see “work” in an entirely new light. Millennials chafed at the restrictions of the traditional office environment. Their motivations and expectations from a job were entirely different from those of their parents, and they also wanted their work experience to match their online life. Ubiquitous broadband, mobile connectivity and bring-your-own-device made the drudgery of the 9 to 6 routine not only unattractive – but unnecessary.

And thus was born the co-working model.

Millennials found themselves spending their days with like-minded peers, in attractively designed workspaces with areas for relaxation and even games, as well as group and solo work. Well-stocked pantries and decent coffee on tap helped complete an environment that tenants loved. WeWork was the pioneer and poster boy for the co-working industry, which grew dramatically around the globe. The Asia Pacific region alone accounted for over one-third of all the available co-working spaces worldwide.

The initial appeal was for young, dynamic entrepreneurs and freelancers who relished the networking and disruptive thinking that wasn’t available in the traditional, uptight office.  But it was recognising the value of this creative chaos, as well as the attractive pay-only-for-what-you-use business model, that led a number of major enterprises to place at least some of their staff in a flexible workspace. These included giants like IBM, Salesforce, HSBC and Facebook.

It looked like co-working was the future – and then came Covid 19.

Remote work was not completely new, but lockdowns meant a sudden, dramatic shift to entire companies working from home.  Going to the office was forbidden – and this constraint applied to co-working spaces as much as to the traditional office.  Organisations adapted remarkably fast to the huge challenge of transforming their work practices, with reliable connectivity at home being the first concern. The typical home wi-fi has neither the bandwidth nor the security to manage constant corporate traffic, so where possible employers implemented business grade broadband solutions that could handle virtual meetings and video conferencing with no drop in performance, and with enterprise-level security.

Once the technical issues were resolved, smart operators realised that for WFH to be productive and successful, they needed a rethink on how to best manage their people. Those who operated on the orthodox command-and-control, micro-managing style, soon discovered success would require a much more collaborative approach, with a focus on shared goals and mutual trust. With mental health issues, due to Covid grabbing the headlines, savvy operators recognised the urgency to support both the physical and mental health of their workforce and implemented ideas for staff to develop, learn and socialise virtually. And employees on the whole responded positively to the changes – Farewell to the daily commute! Dress-down Friday every day! And welcome to a new partnership approach!

For a while, it seemed like the whole world was moving to WFH.  Several major enterprises, including SAP, Meta and 3M declared all or most of their staff would continue to work remotely, and work-from-home was proclaimed to be the “new normal”.

But is it?

As time has passed and more results have emerged from this massive social experiment, more downsides to WFH have become apparent. In a sense, work-from-home thrust everyone into a co-working space – but instead of kindred spirits, their companions are spouses, children, siblings, pets, the guy who’s come to fix the dryer and the noisy neighbour upstairs. At one extreme, far too many distractions, or the utter loneliness of social isolation. Video calls make a poor substitute for in-person interactions with colleagues and team members, the absence of a set routine can lead to either overwork or lack of motivation, and the spark of spontaneous creativity is missing.

So what is the answer?

Increasingly, companies want to see their staff back in the office, at least part of the time. But employee expectations have changed. The lockdowns gave people the chance to re-evaluate what they wanted from their careers, and employers need to accommodate these new demands if they are to stave off the Great Resignation.

What is emerging as the ideal solution is the hybrid model, taking the best from legacy offices, co-working and WFH. Staff spend a couple of days each week in the office and otherwise continue to work remotely. This allows more personal interactions among teams and managers, while maintaining the benefits of work-from-home. Hot-desking fits this concept, with employees keeping their personal possessions in a locker when they’re at the office, and using whichever desk is free. Over time this will enable businesses to reduce their costly business-district footprint as leases expire and they can downsize.

In the meantime, traditional offices can learn from the co-working environment and convert a few redundant workstations into social spaces with sofas and coffee tables.  It is a lot more cost effective to upgrade the pantry offerings than re-hire new talent so while there may not be room to have the Barista on board, a coffee machine and a well-stocked fridge could go a long way to help. Emphatically, the trust built between management and staff that grew from the necessity of the forced WFH must be nurtured recognising that treating staff like grown-ups has proven its value in corporate performance over the last two years.

Priority Consultants has operated this hybrid model in our region for many years, with great success.  Our staff are spread over eleven cities in Southeast Asia and India.  They work from home or at nearby co-working spaces, and manage virtual connections with colleagues, clients and media around the world every day. Our only formal office is our Singapore HQ, the centre for regular regional meetings. Local staff follow a blend of office and remote work, as circumstances demand. Our experience suggests we have found the happy medium.

High speed internet, cloud technologies and shared devices have changed the world of work for ever. The businesses that will flourish in this new age are those that embrace the changes and make it possible for their employees to deliver high-quality work from anywhere – even from different cities and time zones. When employees are trusted and cared for, their managers won’t need to worry about their teams’ performance.