As a result of COVID-19, the workplace will be forever changed. Instead of a step back in time, this era will be a catalyst for positive change: we will be moving forward to a new place, modified in strategic ways, incorporating new practices, new protocols and new technologies.
The future of work will integrate the lessons learned from our extended time working from home, an experience that many businesses have transitioned to with minimal friction, and free us from preconceived notions about place and productivity.
While the Gensler U.S. Work From Home Survey 2020 shows with real data that most people want to return to the office the majority of their week, employees also want a future in which they have more choice and agency than they did before the pandemic. Despite declarations from some that full-time work-from-home arrangements will remain after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, there are many indicators that permanent work-from-home arrangements are not sustainable for culture, innovation and talent development, nor is it a replacement for the speed of trust and collaboration that’s built through face-to-face work. Collaborative work moves forward at the speed of trust that is built into our relationships.
So why do people want to return to the office?
Research shows that the top reason people want to come back to the office is the people. In fact, 54 per cent of respondents from Gensler’s survey say their colleagues are what they miss the most about the office. While work-from-home has made it possible to keep momentum for most work functions, it is not a perfect substitute for work that’s done together.
This all begs for a change in how the workplace functions. As we start making the transition back to the office, and as we resettle more permanently, the kinds of collaboration, teamwork and meetings that make up our daily work lives will need to embrace a new “hybrid reality” — a blend of analog and virtual participation that could redefine how we accomplish work going forward.
What will the new hybrid office look like?
While empty in the short term, a return to the office demands that we create an ecosystem of workplace experiences that employees cannot get at home in order for a hybrid future to be successful.
Productivity myths around working from home have been thoroughly debunked. In fact, a report from NordVPN (March 2020) revealed that Canadians increased their average workday by 2 hours since the onset of the pandemic. We know that focused work can happen successfully at home.
Remote work has also made it clear which spaces best facilitate collaboration, focus, learning and socializing. What’s emerging is a hybrid future, with people working and collaborating from home and from the office. When people return to the office, 60 per cent reported they expect more choices in how to work, including increased opportunities to work remotely.
Right-sizing spaces for hybrid work behaviours requires the office of the future to align meeting spaces to the types of collaboration that occur in-office as opposed to virtually, for example; in the future, generative ideation meetings will be prioritized as in-person events, whereas evaluative decision-making meetings will happen virtually. Built on the idea that with fewer employees physically present on any given day, offices can offer more flexibility of layout and management.
This will require an enhanced technology infrastructure to support seamless virtual connection opportunities in the physical workplace, ensuring the collaboration experience is consistent for both in-person and virtual participants.
Other technology interventions that will affect facilities’ teams and building managers will be intelligent rooms that will enable staff to manage how they use shared spaces through smartphone apps. Gathering spaces, meeting rooms, phone rooms and focus hubs will be catalogued and available for reservation at the touch of a screen. Space booking will be enhanced by allowing employees to order catering, adjust AV, lighting and temperature all from the same management system. Guests will be able to check into the building via the same system and be screened, then given the necessary directions to the meeting room or workspace.
A natural consequence of smart offices is that they will enable service teams to either hold slots for cleaning or use the available data to identify high-traffic areas to focus their cleaning efforts. Maintenance teams will also use the data from meeting room booking systems in order to plan cleaning when areas have been vacated.
Ultimately, the hybrid office will have at its heart a planning principle based on people rotating in and out of the office, with flexible schedules they have more control over than ever. Its biggest draw will be more varied workspaces for collaboration, a refuge from a distraction-filled home and, more importantly, a place for human connection.
Annie Bergeron is the design director at Gensler.