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Work: A New Landscape

As governments announced lockdown across the world, 90% of office workers were suddenly forced to work from home overnight. Companies adapted quickly and went through an accelerated digital transformation, ensuring their collaboration tools and systems were efficient enough to support a remote workforce. The realisation that work was ubiquitous finally resonated with many organisations globally.

Post pandemic, companies are reassessing their property portfolios and wondering how much real estate they really need. So, if knowledge workers can work from home, what does this mean for the future of our workplaces? How will this impact real estate strategies, how we design and manage workplaces and generally our approach to work? And if we can all work from home, why even have an office?

This conversation is not new. The pandemic has simply accelerated changes that we have been discussing for years.

Workplaces with a purpose

The very purpose of the office providing serendipity and impromptu ‘water cooler moments’ with colleagues cannot be fulfilled by working from home.

Are workplaces the bedrock of company cultures? The number one search on company review website Glassdoor is company culture and is often a deciding factor when choosing a company. Workplaces fulfil our need for social interaction; they are places where we CONNECT, COMMUNICATE, COLLABORATE and LEARN.

Just like fans congregate at football stadiums, or religious communities at their place of worship, workplaces create a sense of community and belonging. A culture is built on shared values, having the right behaviours and a common purpose. We need places that support a positive culture and can bring people together for social interaction. Whilst the workplace is not the sole embodiment of a company culture, getting together in a physical environment certainly helps in building communities and giving a sense of belonging.

We need to create workplaces where people want to come to as opposed to feel that they have to. As designers and workplace specialists, our role is to create great workplace experiences, not just from as aesthetics point of view but from a cultural standpoint.

Work as an ecosystem

It is worth looking at work in its broader sense; it is not just about the physical workplace, but also home working and our commute. These three elements need to be taken into consideration when we talk about experiences at work. In the future, there will be a more holistic approach to supporting employee’s “end to end” work experience.

With nervousness around commuting, some companies are offering a bike to work scheme. We may see a renewed interest in cycling, especially in larger cities where public transport may become less appealing.

Some companies are already offering grants for staff to have better work settings at home. If home working becomes the norm as part of flexible working becoming mainstream, ensuring good ergonomics at home will be important, so when will it become the responsibility of employers to provide a set-up which is at least as good as in our workplaces? This is obviously achievable, but it comes down to budget and willingness to support home working.

Blended working

Choice and flexibility are key elements often cited in job satisfaction. We conducted a survey and spoke to our clients; 81% of respondents said they like working from home and enjoy the flexibility homeworking offers. 61.8% of respondents said they previously commuted anything between 40 minutes to over 90 minutes every day before the lockdown, so it’s no surprise that 67% of respondents want to continue to work from home after the pandemic, at least for some of their working week.

Despite working from home often meaning working longer hours (46.5% respondents said they’re working hours have increased), it allows individuals to be in control of their surroundings and their schedule which positively impacts work-life balance and people will be keen to retain that.

Our survey also revealed that the biggest factor people are missing about the office is face to face communication (83.4% of respondents). Furthermore, 35% of respondents said they miss collaboration areas and meeting rooms, 34% miss having lunch with colleagues and 28% are missing social events. These results are telling of that the purpose of the office moving forward will be for social interaction, collaboration and innovation.

Flexibility is here to stay with companies allowing a blend of home working and office working. There will also be increased fluidity round when employees can come into the workplace by offering extended hours and days, with companies having workplaces open seven days a week and encouraging individuals to commute outside rush hours. The traditional 9-5 will likely be a thing of the past, replaced by “blended work”, management by output, trust and empowerment. When looking for a new job, flexibility will be one of the key requirements.

We could see companies investing in concierge services to entice people back in the office and even offer childcare with onsite creches to cater for working parents.

Retaining a strong culture

Beyond the more practical aspects, how do you manage a disparate workforce, retain a strong culture and support mental wellbeing? Managers and leaders have a big part to play in remaining connected to their teams. And that is through regular interaction, great communication and creating moments where teams can bond. We’ve all done virtual drinks, pub quizzes and socials but it’s not quite the same as getting together is real life, is it?

Companies that work fully remotely such as Basecamp still get their team to work together face to face regularly. There is an energy that comes with seeing people and interacting that Zoom or Teams will never replace.

A change in the property market?

Businesses might opt for smaller office space in Capitals and choosing to have regional satellite offices or membership in coworking spaces to enable staff to congregate without the downside of long commutes.

Coworking / flex spaces whilst hit hard during the pandemic, might increase in popularity in 2021 with large corporates using them as overflow space to reduce their footprint and as an interim solution while assessing their property requirements. Companies will be cautious in making any radical decisions until they understand the impact increased flexible working practices is having on their day-to-day office space requirements.

The downside of coworking being the lack of control over your environment and who else shares your space, companies are likely to want their own dedicated area within the coworking space, which they can brand and manage like their own.

High-rise multi-tenanted buildings will be less desirable, and we may see some office stock eventually being converted into residential developments – could the centre of our large cities, such as London, be repopulated? Could we see younger generations living above shops, restaurants, cinemas etc. like in other European cities, such as Paris and Barcelona?

Human centric workplaces that make us feel safe

Evidence-based design is not new but will become even more relevant. Companies who choose to have a people-centric approach to identify space requirements based on users’ needs will be more successful in achieving workplaces that are fit for purpose, reflect their brand, culture and support operational needs.

Will the make-up of our office space change? Most certainly. We might see the proportion of desk space decrease and these spaces will likely become agile spaces used for collaboration or social / relaxation areas.

In an era where neurodiversity is recognised, workplaces should cater for a wide range of individuals. We create homes that reflect our taste and personalities. We all have preferences in how and where we work. For workplaces to be appealing and conducing to work, they need to offer choice.

Activity-based working which we have been advocating for some time is likely to become the norm, and workspaces becoming more flexible in order to be easily be reconfigured for different activities taking place: a townhall, social event, hackathon, exercise class etc. Workplaces could become modular spaces, that are built around flexibility and are shaped depending on the needs of its users.  

Outdoor spaces will be more popular and a determinant factor when selecting a building and people might choose to meet outside rather than indoors.

Mobility and connection will also be an important consideration as well as wanting to move away from confined spaces, therefore staircases to link floors might be favoured instead of lifts.

The workplace could become more homely. We will look at how things that we love about our homes such as light, space and biophilia can be replicated into the workplace environment.

Humans are drawn to beautiful spaces. Studies in hospitals have shown that we recover quicker if we can see nature. Bringing the outdoors in will contribute to a sense of wellbeing.

In terms of materials, surfaces that are easily cleaned and antimicrobial, such as copper, will be used more widely.

For companies, the environmental aspect should remain high on the agenda with a continued focus on reducing their carbon footprint by re-evaluating their supply chain, travel policies and how workplaces can be more sustainable.

An increased focus on wellbeing

Air quality will come under more scrutiny. The Well Building Certification Scheme may become more important for occupiers when selecting new premises. The new AirRated AirScore certification provides a rating about indoor air quality. In a world where people look at online reviews before making decisions, we will see a demand for more transparency on the health of our buildings and websites like Glassdoor will also give an indication of how companies are supporting employee’s wellbeing.

We know that environmental factors can impact our performance. For instance every 1°F deviation from an optimal indoor temperature can generate a 2% decrease in output. In another study, researchers found that every time you double the rate of outdoor air delivered into an office, worker performance improves by 1.7%.

Ventilation systems that can filter airborne pathogens and bring more outside air to lower transmission of viruses will be the norm.

With growing concern about indoor air pollution and rise in indoor air quality monitoring, there will be a deliberate attempt to source more natural, sustainable, locally sourced products and reduce the use of materials that contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Acceleration of digitization

We have seen an acceleration of digital transformation and this may gather even more speed with tech assisting in creating safe and healthy workplaces: the contactless office. Voice recognition tech motion sensors and workplace Apps will prevent us from touching surfaces and will enable us to open doors, book meeting rooms and make a coffee. Employees will want to know when their desk or meeting room was last cleaned and where people are in the office. With more flexible working, desk booking systems will be used to secure a desk on days where people choose to go to the office.

Sensors will be used to monitor occupancy levels but also air quality and temperature and will send alerts once it reaches beyond safe levels. Again, transparency will be the norm and this information will be readily available to employees. Occupancy data will enable businesses to make informed decisions in terms of their property portfolio ahead of a lease event.

We will undoubtedly see more investment in more immersive collaboration tools, digital screens and VC tools …Microsoft’s spatial system enables meetings with holograms.

The future is bright

Whatever happens next in workplace, the office is certainly not dead, it may evolve but will always serve an important purpose: bringing people together, creating connections and “positive friction”. The current situation has given us an opportunity to create better workplaces.

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