What will the office of the future look like after the pandemic?

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The coronavirus has changed many aspects of our society, some temporarily and others in ways that are likely to be permanent. One such example is the workplace environment and our expectations around the office of the future.

When we’ve previously discussed the future of work in New Zealand, we’ve highlighted the challenges of skills shortages, the war for talent, and managing an increasingly multi-generational workforce. These challenges have thrown up a need for organizations to:

  • Increase employee benefits and flexible working options to attract talent
  • Compete more readily for talent on a global scale, and
  • Reduce focus on degrees, skills, and experience in favour of talent and purpose.

In terms of workplace design, we’ve also predicted that the future will hold more diverse and flexible workspaces, such as quiet zones for deep work, or meeting areas for collaborative teamwork. For employers, this means being intentional in considering the needs of their employees for workspaces that accommodate different types of work and working styles.

But in the wake of a global pandemic, how has the future of work changed and what can we expect the office of the future to look like?

It’s worth noting that disease and the fear of infection have influenced architecture and the form of our built environments many times in the past. Cholera prompted the introduction of sewerage systems, the bubonic plague in China led to rat-proofing buildings, and tuberculosis is at least partially responsible for the white, clean modernist aesthetic.

There is little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is also changing the way we use our workspaces right now.

Contactless design

Base building architects and workplace designers are prioritizing hands-free and contactless pathways through offices, using technology such as voice activation, sensors, facial recognition, and smartphones. Ideally, we will be entering our buildings through sensor doors, calling the lift on our smartphones, and using facial recognition to enter your office suite, making it to your desk without the need to needlessly touch surfaces. Embracing these technologies will further future-proof workspaces and increase visitor and employee engagement within the spaces.

Flexibility as we’ve never known it

Not-withstanding the negative impact COVID-19 had on the world around us, most of us were empowered with trust overnight – and most responded in an exceptional manner. Working flexibly and remotely has suddenly been normalized and the stigma attached to it has disappeared.

This period has been enlightening, giving us a fresh perspective on the way we work; a reset of work-life balance as we have not experienced in the recent past. We need to accept that with enlightenment comes a responsibility for us as employees, to work proactively to make the new environment work. As such, we’ve identified some success factors for individuals and teams working in the new normal:

  1. The ability to work with autonomy

William Shakespeare, as always, makes this point with the least verbiage: “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in us.” Organizations will benefit greatly from team members that are self-directed and who manage up and drive results rather than being passengers on this journey.

  1. Physical distance requires – and often builds – trust

Stronger bonds have been built in teams as we prove to ourselves and to each other that we are reliable and available – despite being physically distanced.

  1. Flexibility requires an outcome focus

Work is not a rigid time schedule, but rather is about the goals you achieve and tasks you master. Our forced work-from-home time has shown us what we always knew but were frightened to demonstrate: that it is the output and outcome that matter, not that you were still at your desk at 7pm on a Thursday.

  1. True connection comes from knowing the people behind the work

We’ve come to know each other on a deeper level now – being let into each other’s sanctuaries. We’ve seen changes in the way colleagues interact. Emotional barriers have been broken down as we’ve witnessed each other on Zoom calls, managing our work and home lives alongside one another. We’re meeting each other’s pets, kids, and housemates; seeing inside their bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens.

The clear boundaries between work and home have become blurred and this is often for the better, creating more genuine relationships and greater flexibility in response to different employees’ needs. Our relationships are no longer transactional and will hopefully never return to being just that.

Managers and business leaders have also been innovative in how they support their teams from a distance, with many showing greater concern for employee mental health and wellbeing. As remote workers make up a greater portion of their teams in the future, employers need to continue to facilitate engaging employee on boarding, collaboration, and connection.

So what happens next?

The pertinent question that currently has no answer is this: What impact if any, will COVID-19 have on the workspace in the long term? Has the home office just become an extension of your activity-based working strategy, and have we simply discovered we can be flexible beyond what we previously thought possible? Has COVID-19 simply augmented and accelerated the strategies we were moving towards before the pandemic hit?

Most of us left the office, knowing each other and our roles, understanding our binding culture, and what is expected of our behaviour. However, long-term data is not available on how working from home on a more long-term basis will affect organizational culture. With 25 to 30% of employees looking forward to continuing to work from home a few days a week in the future and some wanting to do so full-time, it is something that should be considered.

I believe our workplaces will always play a crucial role in maintaining cultural place making and binding teams together. This means that organizations will look at their facilities in a different light and not calculate their required office space based on a rough 10sqm/FTE (full-time employee) which has become the norm. The thought that organizations may now appreciate wider thoroughfares and distancing workstations more spaciously is simply a more exciting and human alternative to the dense population approach of 2019.

If a balance can, therefore, be struck, it is highly possible that deep, focussed work can now be done at home, and that this can redefine the workspace as a hub for social connection, incidental conversation, and collaboration. The golden moments that are not scheduled and often lead to innovation, happen in the office when no one plans it. By providing an activated, engaged hub which caters for various activities, a new workspace could provide a variety of accommodation for staff counts way beyond the traditional 1/10sqm calculations, whilst decreasing the density of bodies in space at any particular moment in time.

This may lead to organizations keeping their current leased space but increasing their alternate accommodation, or indeed, decreasing their required space altogether. We anticipate that will need to be assessed for all organizations, based on their unique needs.

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