To say that the pandemic has changed the way we work is a huge understatement. There have been a variety of challenges and significant losses, but thankfully, some unexpected gains, too. 

As we look to the very near future, it is safe to say that the way we work and the way offices are organized will never be the same again. But as we return to this new normal, we can use these reflections to build a more healthy, productive, connected, and flexible workplace.

The big winner in this new landscape has been the ability to work remotely. Instead of decreased productivity, we actually saw gains. But one of the ways that productivity happens took a hit, and that was our ability to spontaneously connect with each other over the proverbial “watercooler.” Gone were the impromptu chats in the kitchen, hallway, or over drinks after work. These spontaneous meetups are valuable in a variety of ways—essentially fueling relationships that build engagement and trust and lead to greater efficiency.

We know this, which is why employee engagement surveys inquire about workplace friendships; they realize that these relationships lead to greater employee fulfillment and retention. Prior to the pandemic, everyday spontaneous connections helped create these meaningful relationships. During the pandemic, we have had to adapt to less spontaneous (but equally important) connections such as virtual “coffee chats” or get-togethers around holidays, where coworkers “share” food, play games, and talk about their lives.

What will be more challenging to replace is the unexpected productivity that comes from spontaneous meetups. These meetups lead to conversations that address issues, solve problems, and often remove the need to schedule yet another meeting. Without these chance encounters, we find our schedules packed with meeting upon meeting. However, as we think about returning to our offices or designing future ones, it will be important to foster these pre-pandemic spontaneous interactions and create spaces that foster them.

Virtual meetings have been an overwhelming asset, and often in surprising ways. They ironically have led to greater empathy about demands on our personal time, and as a result, greater human relatedness. Most of us have experienced meetings being interrupted by a very assertive two-year-old or the flash of a cat’s tail as it floats up against the screen. These very human (and humorous) moments create connection in a time when we need it most. Additionally, seeing people’s living rooms or impromptu home-office spaces separated by a curtain or decorated with a plant brings an intimacy that is not always present at work. It will be our challenge to retain this intimacy and connection as the pace of “returning to normal” races toward us.

While virtual video meetings have provided a platform for us to maintain “face-to-face” interactions, they have also challenged our ability to listen attentively without distraction. I often find myself turning the camera off to be more present and focused. Free from the distraction of someone’s background or an awareness of how I’m looking and responding, the quality of listening becomes more refined and attentive—especially during difficult conversations. Evidence has shown that listening on its own can increase empathy more than listening while juggling the interpretation of facial cues. As we go back to face-to-face meetings in places that have a multitude of distractions, I hope we retain our ability to home in on and refine our ability to listen and relate.

It is safe to say that virtual meetings are here to stay, as is working remotely. It is clear that remote work positively impacts people’s productivity and happiness. Companies that maintain connection and clarity around mission, purpose, and objectives will be able to extend and enjoy the benefits around remote work and the productivity and lifestyle gains that it delivers.  

Nevertheless, most of us will be returning to the office in some form and because of evolving regional and global realities around the pandemic, meetings will remain a blend of in-person and virtual. The technology will also be relied on to more frequently connect us to colleagues in the field instead of waiting for quarterly or annual in-person events.

The challenge will be to ensure that everyone is heard and can participate in the same way, whether they’re virtual or in person. Since most of us are now intimately familiar with the technical issues that can occur with video conferencing, we all have more empathy around the importance of making these connections work so that everybody—virtual or in person—has an effective seat at the table.

As we move forward, the winning mindsets of the pandemic—flexibility, adaptability, and connect-ability—will serve us well as we create the office of the future and maintain productivity.

How do we build the common spaces that we now see are so important? How do we respect and include virtual interactions with in-person ones? My hope is that we stay empathetic, spontaneous, and most importantly, connected so we can return not to the old normal but so we can create a new—and perhaps more effective—normal for all.