In discussing the likely form of the post-Covid and hybrid workplace, it is tempting to go straight to the interior design solution and highlight the likely shift in balance between focused and collaborative work and the importance of building places to promote social interaction. There are, however, a number of strategic imperatives – the big ideas, if you like – that need to be thought about first, since they will ultimately govern the final form of any built environment.
The need for an improved workplace
Various industry surveys over the last 18 months have indicated that the average home work setting seems to work better than the average company workplace (functionality, future use forecasts, self-perceptions of productivity, etc). This suggests that in order to encourage people back to the office, a compelling space needs to be provided.
Given the likely increase in the number of activity-based environments that might be expected in the shared-space hybrid model, industry data suggests that the most significant game changer in terms of employee workplace satisfaction is “the range and variety of workplace choices”. These choices need to cover the full range of task settings, moods, and experience preferences likely to be well received by at least some percentage of the entire employee population. Furthermore, it should be understood that activity-based environments present the very best chance of providing this choice.
Working outside the office gives us a chance to address the three biggest and most consistent complaints about working in an office: noise, interruptions, and temperature control. This has no doubt contributed to the rise in self-reported productivity since the start of the pandemic. In one industry study, for example, 82.2% of respondents agreed that “their home environment enables them to work productively” versus 62.8% for the average office and 78.3% for even the very best offices.
Assuming leadership accepts and acknowledges these self-reported productivity assessments, it stands to reason that less people will ultimately make the daily visit to the office and that the office footprint can be reduced as a consequence.
Interestingly enough, data emerging from Denmark, where a return to work is in full flow, suggests that companies, in their efforts to encourage people to come back to the office, are actually pursuing attendance levels in excess of those seen prior to the pandemic. These organizations have only just now recognized how poorly their offices were being used before the pandemic and how ill-fitting their spaces had been relative to actual attendance levels. They should have downsized years ago.
It is highly likely that a number of factors – government mandates, ethical business considerations, cost of operations, talent preferences, etc. – will put further pressure on organizations to actively commit to, and be measured on, their reduction of carbon and other GHG emissions. Reducing the office footprint can be a constructive and cost-effective way to do this. Less business travel, less commuting, and smaller footprints help to reduce the operational and embedded carbon of any organization. Excess office space can then be repurposed as residential property or used to avoid unnecessary construction to meet future office demand.
The new workplace program
Traditionally, space and occupancy planners have driven the development of space programs through data-driven planning approaches based upon discovery processes linked to current and historical use paradigms. This approach will need to be changed:
- Today’s discovery processes are likely to be inaccurate at best as individuals come to understand their comfort levels with returning to the office. Little dependable insight can be gained from the current first tentative steps that individuals and companies are making in this direction.
- It is likely that space planning will be determined by the aggregated demand resulting from individual team discussions (Working Together Agreements) about how they plan to work together in the future (e.g. time at home or a third place versus time in the office; presence in the office and for what purpose, etc.). The preferences guiding these agreements are necessarily going to evolve and shift over time, and therefore pinpoint precision about programming must be considered a thing of the past.
- The new planning paradigm will be to create some flexibility of purpose within the office footprint to shift from one activity to another, but the general planning need will be to drive an educated estimate of the amount of focused, collaborative, social, and client engagement work. This will most likely never meet the need profile precisely, but it does provide a space platform against which one can actively manage presence and use, while employing the flexible elements of the space to address day-to-day capacity variance issues. We will need to learn to develop adaptive and creative mindsets to deal with the ambiguity involved.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
No matter what disconnects exist between future space needs estimates and actual demand on any given day, Artificial Intelligence is likely to intervene. AI has, or will increasingly have, the ability to anticipate demand and to orchestrate attendance and use of the office in alignment with pre-determined business priorities. By being able to optimally assign the use of the office footprint on a daily basis, AI will ensure that priorities are acknowledged and that the space is used intensely and for the highest purpose. Companies are already working to develop these space allocation tools, but we are still very much in the early days of reaping the rewards from this prized new capability.
In designing a workplace, it is important to avoid fashion or trend statements. Fashion, by definition, is fleeting and temporary. It rarely stands the test of time. Consequently, change and incremental investment often follow. This is not good from either a cost or an environmental standpoint.
This doesn’t however mean that environments need to be boring or non-expressive. Classic design built around good proportions, the use of light, effective acoustic design, functionality, reliability, and the use of quality materials gives designers plenty of chance to shine and create environments that people want to come to.
Furniture: the circular economy
The commercial furniture industry has long thrived on building successive generations of products each with only slightly more developed capabilities than the last. As leases expire there is a built-in expectation that it will be a case of out-with-the-old and in-with-the-new. This is crazy! Landfills are filling up with enormous quantities of otherwise perfectly good materials a couple of features short of the latest trend or functionality label but more than sufficient for most people’s needs.
At home, we often treasure older pieces of furniture, whether antiques or mementos of a bygone age, so why can’t we create high quality products first time around that employees will want to have around way past the next lease expiration? The key is that items must be well designed and durable, and the furniture industry through the ages has proven many times over that it is capable of achieving this.
Clearly furniture is not the only item to which this applies. It relates similarly to modular structures, modular walls and floors, service systems (MPE), de-mountable wiring harnesses, recyclable finishes, etc.
The minimum viable workplace
As an idea, the time for “the minimum viable workplace” has arrived. This idea, made possible by the common experience of remote working during the Covid 19 pandemic, denotes a new discipline and a new way of thinking about the provision of office space. It involves the designing of our future workplace into the smallest footprint possible while still meeting the functional requirements we agree are necessary/viable.
Yes, we value the office, particularly for the social and collaborative aspects of work-life but also for its functional capabilities: the ability to engage with customers, the opportunities of mentoring and knowledge transfer, a separation between work and life, and the ability to resolve complex challenges with well-orchestrated creative togetherness.
But at the same time, we don’t believe that the pre-pandemic approach of going to work is worth returning to. The availability of choice to employees, the demands of smaller carbon footprints, and, frankly, business competitiveness make it so.
The challenge we launch is this: “How do we inspire leaders, people managers, and employees to join forces in an effort to cut out waste and rethink what we need? The why, when, where, and how.” This is not a business rush for economy and efficiency; it is a new framework in which to drive innovative solutions, to deliver improved business outcomes, and to deploy an elevated employee experience.