The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the adoption of new ways of working as organisations react to a period of enforced lockdown.
Business leaders are now having to re-imagine their working practices and how to model the workplace of the future to react to the mid-term requirements of living with Covid and the longer-term opportunities when there is a vaccine available or Covid has receded to a manageable level.
Some proponents are claiming the office is dead with working from home or the local café replacing the need for a shared office.
Do we need an office? It’s the physical centre of a business but does it need to be? It sets the benchmark for a whole set of behaviours and values that becomes the company DNA which is passed onto each generation and gives the business a physical presence.
Historically this was important but with the advances in technology can this physical presence be created electronically?
The Bigger Picture
As organisations work through the initial back to work requirements with light touch modifications to their working environments the more forward-thinking employers will be evaluating the longer-term opportunities available to them and their employees.
We all have a wonderful opportunity to break away from the inertia of the past and use this moment in time to re-evaluate ourselves and maximise on the opportunities from this enforced period of change.
The majority of people are enjoying working from home, liberated from long commutes and travel, with employees finding more productive use for the time saved whilst maintaining or increasing their work productivity.
Employers in turn have found that their organisations can operate with their staff being remote and have invested in the technology requirements to support this. Looking forward it is likely that we’ll see the offices downsized as they are no longer required to house as many people.
The new smaller spaces would be re-modelled to support an agile workforce working between home and an office destination for specific tasks and functions, functions that can’t be done remotely.
With this reduction in space requirement there will be a lot of empty commercial office space available with low demand. This space could be re-purposed for residential use or could be used for hotel space.
Some organisations will have employees coming in for a couple of days, and if they live a distance away, maybe they’ll need to stay overnight. The re-purposed space used as hotels will allow employers to offer affordable accommodation to support this and in turn it will allow them to access a much larger talent pool geographically than previously.
The hotel operation would be backed off to an external provider with the organisation having priority rights Monday to Friday and the hotel operator having the benefit of a city centre location for the weekend leisure market.
The Office of the Future
No one know how long the Covid pandemic is going to last or how long it will be before there are treatments and vaccines available.
The current generation having gone through this episode will be looking over their shoulder for the next pandemic and may be rightly nervous of going back to the congestion of a daily commute and busy offices.
Employers have a duty of care for the health and safety of their staff and will need to be careful on how they encourage people back to a working environment. Most importantly there needs to be a ‘draw’ for staff to go to an office, a reason for putting in the effort to get there but worth it when they do.
So, what does this office look like?
Initially whilst Covid is still present and there isn’t a vaccine available then the workplace will need to be adapted to suit the current risk level; employees may be required to wear masks, with a redesign of physical spaces to ensure physical distancing and management of movement in congested areas, i.e. lifts and stairwells.
Longer term the new offices will support activity-based working with various environments to suit differing requirements, more of an ‘office hotel’ than the traditional offices we’re used to.
There will be less individual desking with more communal spaces, video booths and small-scale meeting spaces. Collaboration spaces will be prevalent, some of them might even be a coffee shop or a small eatery.
Touch down spaces will replace desks, no desk-based IT, instead using laptops and devices. These spaces will have an enhanced cleaning regime and micro bacterial surfaces so they can be multi user through a typical working day.
There will be space that suits individual requirements and task requirements, introverts will be able to find a quieter area where they can focus whilst others might prefer a more open, visible higher traffic location.
Personal provision will be important to employees so they can choose freely on how they want work. Important topics to look at include bicycle storage, showers, dining and possibly accommodation. It would also be good to have a bag drop facility or large lockers they can access so they can leave all of their work/travel items in one location and move freely around the workplace without having to carry everything.
Organisations will create environments that support the sort of activities that cannot be done as successfully remotely, collaboration and experience spaces for example and in turn provide a destination that encourages the employee to want to come in and work there.
Having negotiated the abrupt change to remote working it will be interesting to see how the workplace culture will continue without the current physical workplace to cultivate and reinforce the company culture. Initial findings are that the culture has also gone electronic and new behaviours will emerge that will continue to define and support the workplace culture of the organisation.
There will be an increased reliance on trust, both ways between employers and employees, with the employer having to trust the employee more and shift to measuring their people on performance and results, not attendance.
In return the employee will need to trust their employers to provide a safe suitable means of carrying out their job functions with the correct technology provision and safe working environments.
After quickly adopting remote working practices, and in most cases, the ease of transfer and positives this has added, organisations will restructure how work is done and look at their working practices and evolve them to a longer-term position that incorporates remote working, technology, and behaviour to develop a robust working model.
The more successful organisations will incorporate their values and culture into this new way of working and maintain the collective effect of the larger employee population ensuring spontaneity, mentorship and productivity and collaboration just as they would have done prior to Covid.
The majority of people are enjoying working from home, enjoying the time liberated from long commutes and travel. With this comes a need to balance role responsibilities against individual requirements – roles can be reclassified into a spread ranging from fully remote, 100% offsite to 100% on site in the office dependant on the role and user requirements. In between these two positions would be a blended selection of hybrid roles with elements of home/office/remote working to suit the business and individual needs.
The offering needs to cover both ends of the working population and allow the individual to select the most appropriate solution to their combined work/lifestyle requirements whilst at the same time complying with the employer’s requirements.
It is absolutely paramount that employees see management doing what they have to do to provide a safe working environment and receive the tools required to function correctly in the job role.
Over recent years technology has allowed for the individual to be de-shackled from their desk and take their work with them allowing them to work where and to some extent when they want. Coupled with the move to remote working models there has never been a better time to adapt to this unique position and reap the benefits for both employee and employer.
Video conferencing has come into its own during lockdown and domestic bandwidths have kept up with the data processing requirements of working from home. These tools will continue to develop with always on ‘wormholes’ between team members and interactive ‘digital white boards’ that broadcast to the team whilst they are working together.
Ultimately there will be new tools to allow employers to measure the productivity of their employees as long as they avoid overbearing time management logging which effectively renders the employee a prisoner in their own home. This isn’t flexible working, look again at the trust message earlier in this article.
Building technology will advance to manage employee access and avoid peak loadings on constricted spaces such as lifts and stairwells. There will be enhanced cleaning systems, air-monitoring and intelligent air-conditioning and fresh air systems.
In conclusion organisations must ensure that when employees return to the office environment, workplaces are both productive and safe and there is a step change to a culture of measuring performance not attendance.
Whilst we are unable to predict the future it is highly unlikely that we will return to our pre Covid working practices. Organisations must use this point in time to break away from the inertia of the past and use the occasion to re-invent themselves and maximise on the opportunities from this reinforced period of change. There are opportunities to reset the work life balance and remodel offices into destination spaces that support the business requirements and benefit employers and employees alike.