Introducing the workplace of the future
Flexible, smart, safe and inspiring. Welcome to the post-pandemic office space. As employees begin to consider returning to their normal work regimes, they will likely find their offices look and operate differently from how they once did. In fact, they may find their workplaces will never be the same again.
COVID-19 induced a mass exodus of workers from Australia’s offices to their homes. As employees begin to consider their post-pandemic work regimes, they will likely find their offices look and operate differently from how they once did. In fact, they may find their workplaces will never be the same again.
First, offices need to be adapted to keep people safe. Beyond that, the entire concept of a ‘central office’ is uncertain, says Tica Hessing, a human geographer with global real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield.
“It’s an important moment to assess what worked well during the enforced work-from-home period and what we can learn to inform the future of offices,” says Hessing.
“There’s the opportunity to reimagine the purpose of the office. The need to go to the office will not go away but we should more fundamentally question why we are going there.”
Need for flexibility
Employees appear to have generally enjoyed working from home and many have shown a willingness to keep doing so. But perhaps only sometimes.
A Cushman & Wakefield global survey of 40,000 workers across almost 20 industries found 73 per cent of workers would like to continue working flexibly. However, almost half missed the social bonding that comes with office life when they worked from home all the time.
“Organisations should not confuse short-term, mid-crisis performance with blanket long-term preference,” says Hessing. “Many workers who are executing well with work-from-home policies by necessity will be glad to return to the office, for at least some days, when it is safe to do so and they again have the choice. Based on this, we would only expect five to six percent of the workforce to work from home permanently.
“As we look to the future, the office will have a new purpose: to provide inspiring destinations that strengthen cultural connection, enhance learning and foster creativity and innovation. There is always going to be a place for the office.”
The first job of anyone running an office during the pandemic is to ensure workers are safe. Cushman & Wakefield has come up with the 6 Feet Office concept, a guide to help its clients prepare offices while strict sanitary practices and social distancing remain in force. It covers everything from safe workstations to office traffic flow.
“It’s a visual guide to inspire people to think about solutions, on how to bring into play social distancing, how to prepare the building appropriately and use design to nudge people towards different behaviours,” says Hessing. “The concept includes the Safe 6 principles, from physical distancing to walking clockwise around the office to reducing touchpoints with potentially contaminated surfaces.”
A safe office requires a combined effort between employees – who will need to understand rules and act responsibly – and integrated facilities management (IFM), comprising facilities management, operations, security, sanitisation, hygiene, and real-time continuous service provision.
“Facilities management will be on the front line, with increased cleaning, new protocols for reception and increased waste due to personal protective equipment and cleaning,” says Hessing.
“Air quality and building servicing will be a focal point for health and wellbeing. Food provision may need to be reconsidered, with potentially fewer open deli counter solutions and more wrapped food. Facilities management will directly impact the employee experience.”
If we didn’t realise how reliant we were on technology before the pandemic, we do now. With the Zoom boom, the NBN increasing bandwidth and office IT systems having to adapt to workers suddenly logging in almost entirely remotely, tech has had to step up to the plate. And it’s likely to play a more prominent role as the post-COVID-19 office evolves, Hessing says.
“The value of intelligent buildings and the Internet of Things has become clear during this period of remote working. There is likely to be increased investment in virtual solutions, such as remote-operated security, drones for building viewings, deployment of cleaning robots and virtual receptionists.
“Biometric security and space-management systems could allow no-touch access and circulation through buildings, workspaces and meeting rooms. Technology could enable ‘touchless offices’, where access is powered through biometrics and voice.”
Hessing sounds a note of caution: it’s essential that privacy concerns are addressed. Technology must be employed ethically. If it is, it can be a force for good, enhancing not just safety and connectivity but sustainability, too.
“Intelligent building information management systems with embedded analytics will enable more efficient management of energy use and occupancy,” she says. “In the short term, occupiers can temporarily shut down floors that aren’t being used; and in the longer term, they can ‘right-size’ their real-estate requirements for a distributed workforce.”
Goodbye office, hello ecosystem
In the workplace of the future, employee welfare is paramount. If employers and facilities managers want their office environment to thrive, they need to think differently about what the workplace is and what it offers the people who work in it.
“It’s imperative to recognise that the workplace will no longer be a single location but an ecosystem of a variety of locations and experiences to support flexibility, functionality and employee wellbeing,” says Hessing.
“The office of the future will become a place for connectivity, both virtual and physical. Businesses will need to create an environment that people want to spend time in, as opposed to seeing it as a daily chore.”