Physical offices may change from productivity points to flexible spaces that allow for collaboration. Here are Robert Wilkinson’s predictions of five likely trends.
2020, the year of social distancing and solitude, where the proverbial ‘keep out’ sign went up on the office door urging us to stay safe by staying at home. How has what we covet for a working environment changed in the face of the COVID-19? Prior to coronavirus, there was a priority to ensure that workers felt connected to their environment with offices dedicated to creating spaces for productivity, play and socialisation. Do we still dream of spaces where no cent is spared and one of the perks of employment was the office that you were going to get to frequent daily? (I’m looking at you Apple and Google). As the workforce tenderly begins to return to site, to some capacity, it is time for many businesses, and indeed individuals, to look at what ‘the office’ may just look like.
Let’s start by putting it out there – the idea of the traditional office space is not a need anymore, due to the increase in automation and our advancements in technology. Gone are the days where it was essential to go into the office because without being on site, you would not have access to the files, information and co-workers which allowed you to complete your role. Offices have primarily become a venue to support the collaboration of work. What remains crucial is that the spaces are innovative and provide emotional benefits that increase employee productivity.
There are five trends I believe will define our offices of the future. Many of these are intertwined and are actually the result of each other as we embrace our new normal and continue on a trajectory dedicated to the evolution of technology and employee wellbeing.
1. All hail technology!
Technology and, most importantly, connectivity continues to be the number one driver in how we adapt our office spaces to suit our working requirements. As technology evolves and businesses continue to embrace its offerings, thought needs to be given to how we collaborate with each other. Many companies have moved away from the separatist idea of their international offices and employees having very little to do with each other. Instead, they embrace the association, encouraging intercontinental teamwork. COVID-19 has seen a massive rise in our usage of platforms such as Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts and we’re moving to virtual communication with our local compatriots as well. Our physical office spaces need most critically to provide space for our virtual co-workers to join in efficiently and successfully with screens, audio and a good internet connection.
2. Make me mobile – the replacement of the office with a workspace
Our offices have changed their appearance over the years as we work from home, cafés, the airport, the library and often any other space we could imagine thanks to the technology we have available. We were already moving towards the work concept of a work/life balance and flexible working arrangements when COVID-19 came along and essentially fast tracked it. We really can and have been working anywhere and current circumstances prove it can be done successfully. Does this make the office essentially obsolete? Some businesses are seriously toying with the idea as the economic impact of COVID-19 takes its toll and they look to reduce their overheads and employees continue to turn their back on returning to the office.
Many businesses are entertaining shared working spaces with other companies and exploring hot-desking. The younger generation also joins the three other generations currently still gainfully employed in the workforce with a different set of expectations. They anticipate that their work life will mirror their personal life, with a range of connectivity and mobile options available to them. There is the silent ‘given’ that the company they work for will be utilising the technological tools we have discussed and they embrace this with confidence. What this ultimately spells for all of us is that as long as we have a space, we essentially have our office at hand.
3. De-densification and keeping our distance
Office design was already moving away from the traditional cubical set up prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic is likely to spell the death of offices filled with rows and rows of desks. De-densification of our spaces supports our current need for physical distancing and ensures that just because there is space it doesn’t mean we should plug it with workstations. Our offices will continue to be thoughtfully spaced out with density of numbers and equipment taken into consideration.
4. Yes to open space, but not necessarily open space offices – creating an environment that supports activity-based working
Points one to three have almost been the precursor for this trend. Not so long ago the concept of open offices was all the rage. We began to sour on the idea when we realised that this meant our working style was ironically pigeonholed – that we were left with limited options as to how we could work. We have discovered that working from anywhere truly means anywhere – from sitting on the lounge to standing at the breakfast bar and we want an office environment which can replicate these choices. To best support productivity and well-being, employees need to continue to be presented with what is known as activity based working environments. We want the space to sit and collaborate with our co-workers but we sometimes need solitude just to plug in to the task at hand and work in a quiet space.
The sit/stand desk has become a hit as many of us have decided that being confined to a desk chair is not for us. By also providing social spaces (in what now needs to be a safe capacity) employers are encouraging organic interactions between workers that can also yield great results when speaking to our productivity and well-being. Despite our COVID-19 reservations when it comes to socialising, our commitment to being a choice orientated society will dictate that this facet of office design is unlikely to change in the future.
5. With freedom and flexibility comes monitoring and accountability..?
We have ascertained that in a nutshell we are looking to work in spaces with a level of freedom and flexibility. Despite the pandemic almost instantly granting this to a large portion of the workforce, employers continue to see this working style as a privilege rather than a right. There is always a concern that this flexibility will be abused, that those working from home are not truly working and that productivity could suffer as a result. There is also the sharing of information and sensitive files virtually to take into consideration as long gone is the filing cabinet and key being our only filing option. Businesses need to continue to pivot their internal policies and procedures to ensure that these flexible arrangements benefit all parties.
COVID-19 in itself has meant we have been subjected to a new level of monitoring and accountability as we enjoy what we have previously seen as our social liberties – we need to check in to social venues by providing our personal details and we often find we are having our temperature checked regularly at various locations. Employees need to be mindful that this practice should and will spill over to their work environment and they should see it as a positive. Programs such as that offered by Office Maps are designed to be non-invasive but informational where employers and employees alike are able to keep their finger on the pulse with who and what is where.
Ultimately, the office doesn’t need to be dead and buried. The space, just like us, needs to make some adjustments to best serve our needs. Workspaces need to remain a hub for collaboration and productivity and be able to be as flexible as the individual. This will ensure that the concept of the office maintains a relevance in our working lives now and into the future.
Robert Wilkinson is CXO at OfficeMaps.