When the COVID-19 outbreak struck, Discover Financial Services fully mobilized its entire 25,000 employees to work from home in just a matter of two weeks. Support teams rushed to acquire work-from-home equipment, supply them with the right tools, and distribute to workers from every team. At one point, the company’s offices even installed a drive-thru process for employees to pick up equipment quickly and safely. Before states issued lockdowns, most of Discover’s employees were already working remotely.

Now that restrictions are gradually lifting, the challenge for Discover—and most organizations around the world—is to implement an efficient, effective, and safe return-to-office strategy. Unlike initiating remote work, however, returning to the office won’t be as clear-cut as returning equipment and going back to normal. In fact, normal is a fantasy we may never see again. 

Despite lockdowns loosening and businesses reopening, the virus is very much still active, and employers won’t want to jeopardize employee health and safety by mandating a full return to work. Gone are the days of prototypical coffee-machine chats and small talk at a colleague’s desk. Instead, we’re likely to usher in a new world of pervasive face masks, temperature checks, and unprecedented, stringent office cleaning.

COVID-19 changed the future of work—permanently. As Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella said, “We have seen two years of digital transformation in two months.” As organizations consider their return to work options, let’s look at some of the most popular strategies introduced so far:

1. Permanent/semi-permanent remote work

In May, Facebook and Twitter announced that most employees will be eligible to work from anywhere in the near future, advancing far beyond the current work-from-home movement. While work from anywhere isn’t a novel concept (many companies today are 100% remote), the social media giants’ decisions highlight how corporate perceptions on remote work are changing. If not indefinitely, many organizations have decided to allow remote work until at least the end of 2020. 

Remote work makes sense from an employee engagement standpoint. Employees with flexible schedules have better work-life balance, save time on commutes, and get to spend more time with family. A PGi study found that 82% of workers are less stressed when they work from home, and 77% of workers surveyed by Flexjobs said they would be happier and healthier if they could even occasionally work from home.

2. Rotating schedules

Traditional offices pack as many employees as possible into small spaces, which doesn’t make for a safe environment amidst the pandemic. Many organizations returning to work have rotating schedules where certain employees come into the office every other day and work remotely in between. 

Similarly, organizations are getting more liberal with work flexibility. A recent Gartner survey on 317 CFOs revealed that 74% of companies plan to permanently shift to more remote work post-COVID-19. Nearly a quarter of those plan to move 20% of their on-site employees to permanent remote positions. As more offices reopen, we’ll start to see organizations give employees the option of going into offices or working remotely.

3. Solidified communications strategies

When COVID-19 struck, many organizations weren’t prepared for the sudden onslaught of remote work. From high alert to official lockdown, IT teams had just several weeks to take their entire workforces remote. This resulted in IT teams scrambling to cobble together temporary solutions to enable remote work, most of which don’t match with long-term IT goals. These short-term Band-Aids helped to weather the storm, but in order to thrive in the post-COVID world, organizations need to solidify their technologies.

The demand for cloud communications has never been higher. More organizations are adopting flexible and remote work policies to keep employees safe, and employees need effective communications technology to collaborate and innovate. Tools like unified communications combine team messaging, video conferencing, and cloud phone into a single platform for employees to reach colleagues from anywhere in the world on any device. The single platform also acts as a hub for all file sharing, messaging history, and hosting and joining conference calls.

With unified communications, employees working in offices and from home can collaborate without risking their health from face-to-face interactions.

4. Reconfigured offices

Offices in the post-COVID-19 workplace might never look the same again. In most organizations, office configurations will have to change for the sake of social distancing and employee safety. At the same time, many employees will either work fully remotely or on a rotating schedule. This could transform offices in multiple ways, including:

  • Spaced out office desks
  • The return of cubicles
  • Limited breakroom access
  • Limited bathroom access
  • Limited elevator access
  • Personal protective equipment
  • One-directional hallways
  • Closed-off meeting rooms
  • More hand sanitizer dispensers
  • Temperature checks

Reinventing the workplace with technology

Organizations that try to return to a pre-COVID normal will likely struggle. Employers have an obligation to maintain workplace safety, and employees who feel unsafe won’t be productive. In fact, a study on manufacturing plants found that unsafe work environments cause friction, which significantly hinders productivity. That correlation is now a reality for organizations everywhere, and it’s up to leaders to minimize the impacts.

In order to thrive in the new normal, employers will want to equip employees with the right tools to drive innovation. While collaborating in cramped office environments might be off the table, collaborating virtually can be the perfect solution. Unified communications solutions like the RingCentral app give every employee—regardless of location—the technology to collaborate as if they were working together in the office. Employees can jump from messaging to calls or video meetings with a single click, eliminating the need for multiple disparate communication apps.

Learn more about the post-COVID future of work in our post, “How Cloud Technologies Prepare Your Organization for the Post-COVID-19 Workplace