Saying goodbye to the corner office dream?
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 need for a working environment changed in the face of the COVID19?
Prior to Coronavirus, it was a priority to ensure that workers feel 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 the employment with said company 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 on-site in some capacity it is time for many businesses and individuals to look at what “the office” might just look like.
Let’s start by putting it out there - the idea of the traditional office space is not a NEED any more 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 that allowed you to complete the role for which you were employed. 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 5 trends I believe will define our offices of the future. Many of these are intertwined and are actually born of 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.
All hail technology!
Technology 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 already moved away from the idea of having their international offices run as individual entities that take care of themselves have embraced more collaborative global models. Centre’s of excellence, whereby a particular country or region spearheads a strategy for the wider organisation, have been commonplace for years. This change was made possible by an early uptake of communication tools like Zoom, Teams, and Google Meet that have become household names since the advent of COVID19.
But communication does not equal collaboration.
To achieve a truly collaborative working environment, companies have had to turn to suites of tools that allow multiple people to work from the same canvas, from different locations. Google helped to pioneer this concept with their real-time document collaboration in GSuite. While other technologies such as Atlassian’s distributed project management tools in JIRA, or Miro’s real-time rapid design tool Figma have allowed companies to fully embrace a distributed workforce. In doing so, companies have gained efficiencies through “follow-the-sun” development models, by allowing staff to work from home part-time and have fewer distractions, and by enabling the business to hire the best possible employees, as opposed to just the ones within the catchment area of their offices.
As long as there is an adequate internet connection, all of these benefits are possible.
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, cafes, 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 fast-tracked the situation and proved that a distributed workforce can be effective for the average office-based business.
But does this make the office essentially obsolete?
Some businesses are have already decided that it does. As the economic impact of COVID takes its toll, they have chosen to reduce their overheads by cancelling their leases. Why not, given that many employees have expressed the desire to continue working from home. For some companies, this is a no-brainer, but it certainly isn’t a model for everyone.
Before, we spoke about HOW employees collaborate with each other. But the reason most businesses have continued to maintain an office presence is WHY employees collaborate with one another.
We may be more efficient when we are left alone (for a time), but people are a social bunch. Without a side-by-side working environment, we miss out on getting to know our colleagues, and by extension developing a shared sense of camaraderie and obligation to one another. We also miss out on many of the opportunities to cross-pollinate ideas. There is no bumping into someone from another department at the coffee machine, and hearing out the project they are working on, that sparks an idea for your own project.
Perhaps it is an intuitive understanding of our social nature that has driven many businesses to take a middle road and explore solutions like hot desking and flexible working environments, which make the best of both situations.
De-densification and keeping our distance
Office design was already moving away from the traditional cubical set up prior to COVID, 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 indeed equipment taken into consideration.
Yes, to open space, but not necessarily open space offices. Creating an environment that supports activity-based working
Points 1 to 3 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 pigeon holed – 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 into 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 which can also yield great results when speaking to our productivity and wellbeing. Despite our COVID 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.
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.
COVID19 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 OfficeMaps 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 of OfficeMaps