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The future of workspace

The Future of Workspace

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and proven that work can be done just as effectively from home as in a traditional office.  What does this mean for the office of the future? And if office space is given up altogether, what are the long-term cost and culture implications to companies?

The following is an edited excerpt taken from a podcast with the Chairman and Principal of FOX architects in the US, who have looked at the permanent changes they believe Covid-19 will have on workplace design.

“What’s the function of the office going to be in the future? It’s going to be a place to interact and collaborate and for companies to innovate. Most people are going to approach it and say “Look, if I don’t need to be in the office, I can get work done at home. I can get work done in a flexible work environment which is more convenient, or my team can be in a flex work environment.”

The challenge that most organizations have today is that we can be productive just about anywhere. But it’s our ability to create and to innovate that we really struggle with, especially when we’re remote or removed from each other.

Following on from this whole Covid experience, working from home will continue, alongside the flex workspaces. The office itself is going to take on a new meaning and have different kinds of functions. When it comes to conferences and meeting space, you’re going to find that people are attending those in a variety of different ways.

It might be somebody who’s coming in remotely. Maybe somebody is there, in a physical presence, but this is about people interacting and creating avatars. And that’s something that’s going to become much more prevalent in the future. 

In order to do that effectively and for organizations to stay on their game, you’re going to need spaces where people can come together, interact, share ideas, iterate those ideas, create new things and develop the innovation that we need to keep our economy moving. This is what people are starting to call a destination office.

If you look at how people meet and get to know them and then build on that relationship, its much harder to do over a Zoom meeting. You can take established relationships and maintain them through another technology format, but you are never going to have the ability to create new relationships as strongly. You could use a dating site as a good example of that. You can only do so much over the Internet and you don’t really know how real a person is until you are directly interfacing with them in person. Relationship development is so critical to lasting agreements on how to accomplish things, whether it’s within the company or between companies, so we’re going to have to find the proper mix to go forward.

We don’t yet have the technology where we can read people’s body languages, capture the inferences in our voices or make the eye contact that is vital to interpret and perceive things, and that’s where the biggest gap with the technology is today. So, to perform at our best, we are still going to have to meet and interact in a physical way. 

Recently, the number of people riding bicycles has increased dramatically and it is a lot less stressful. You don’t have to worry about parking places, temperature sensors and all that. But all these things really impact design. They impact the way we work and how we get to work, where we’re going to choose to live, relative to where we work in the future.

One of the big challenges that we have today in our society is this whole concept of diversity and inclusion. It’s through our differences that our eyes are opened, and we learn new things. And to go through the same commute into the same small town and see everybody that’s on the same main street every day, it would not be as creative or as innovative as if someone was in a larger urban area, where you get exposed to different people, different ideas, different settings and different experiences. And that is a necessary part of the workplace because we have all these different things that we get exposed to.

What we saw through our analysis was a desire for increased flexibility and increased choice.  Healthy and safe work environments were a priority. There’s a real focus back on people. It’s almost as if the work itself was less of a priority and it was more about the connectedness, because I think that’s what people were missing most. The feedback that we got out of the work from home situation was interesting because people felt like that’s where they could concentrate the best, that’s where they were the most productive and that’s where they spent the most time. But it came at a huge cost. And that cost was they weren’t able to interact with their peers in a way that they felt comfortable or productive. Like I mentioned earlier, the collaborative workspace was one where the work itself was not the priority. It was the ability to connect with people. That was the priority. So, in the workplace and I think even in the flex work environments as well as coworking space, was that it was more about the team and interaction than it was about the individual. So, I think you’re going to see these work environments become more about that interaction, the sharing of ideas, the ability to exchange and iterate ideas, and helping companies find that new innovation.

One of the other things about the meeting space, and this is one of the things that flex work environments can do very well, is that the primary office space is going to be something that becomes much more exclusive and your guests and visitors may be limited in how far they can go or get into the space. You’re going to see those meeting spaces and flex work environments become where people choose to meet, and so those spaces are going to be geared to safe meetings, efficient meetings, high levels of service, all the amenities that you need, technology, the audio visual stuff, all of that is going to be centered in a location that people will go to. And the office stuff will become more exclusive. 

We were talking about things getting back to normal, and it’s a mistake to look at it like that. We should look at this whole period that we’re in right now very opportunistically. I think that, what technology is going to enable us to do is, for us to customize and individualize things and put a lot more nuance into our workspaces. And so those are the things that are going to really drive organizations forward. If you look at the way space has been designed in the past, they are a one size fits all approach, where a lot of the things are the same. They may look different or have different finishes, but now what you’re going to see is organizations saying, “Hey, I need this type of space,” or, “Hey, I need this tool in my workplace,” or, “I need this type of support”, a focused approach on the type of business that they do, the type of work that they do. So, we’re in this period where I think it’s opening the doors. People are stepping back. They’re looking at it in a new way. There’s going to be tremendous opportunity to drive the workplace forward in the future.”

What are the key themes around the future of workplaces?

  • Designers should be thinking about offices not just as places to work – but also as providing spaces for connection.
  • Employers will be able to consider offering opportunities to work remotely and workplaces should invest in workplace technologies to make it easier. They’ll have to provide microphones, laptop computers and high-speed Internet connections as standard. 
  • Pre COVID there were huddle rooms, but now people need Zoom Rooms set up for video conferences etc.
  • Workplace providers will have to be more focussed in their provision of specialist offices tailored to client needs.
  • Rents may see a decline although office space will remain the main destination for collaboration and meeting rooms.

Factors companies should consider with remote working:

  • The impact on company culture, creativity, ‘water cooler’ moments, employees becoming distanced from the Company.  Inducting new recruits who don’t have a built-up internal network and knowledge of company culture maybe less effective.
  • Changes to employment – what are the rules around working from home? Health and safety, data control, costs for home offices, etc.  All these create unknown issues for the permanent employee/employer relationship.
  • Commuting costs and energy-inefficient offices will be under greater scrutiny because of their significant impact on the environment.
  • Africa focus – working from home in most of Africa is generally a luxury that only the better paid workforce can afford.  Most employees here do not have the space in their homes or reliable services to make it a viable long-term option.

Sources:

Podcast with Brian Fox of Fox Architects and author of Work Design Magazine (US)

Podcast from the Economist, the World Ahead, Out of Office