What form will the office of the future take? With working from home becoming the new norm, many people have expressed a desire to return to the office — the ease of communication, sense of community and of course, after-work drinks. In a previous article, we discussed issues around returning to the office, as well as the disadvantages of working remote. Through our interviews with UK businesses, we found that working from home is not an ideal solution for many. The lack of appropriate facilities at home, distractions from your household, and reduced interaction between colleagues may all harm our productivity and well-being.
Health and safety has been a clear priority for staff returning to the office. Social distancing, face covering, enhanced sanitisation, and contactless features have all become embedded in our daily lives since lockdown. We expect these practices to continue.
Real estate and property management companies have spearheaded the definition of new workplace standards, alongside government guidance. WeWork has released its plan for future offices; their actions include enhanced sanitisation frequency, dismantling open-plan shared spaces into individual spaces and releasing more capacity for meeting rooms. All of this is required to stay compliant with social distancing rules. Many of the recently opened offices appear to suggest that the open-plan office layout is over, cubicles may now be back in fashion. Since the turn of the century, the open-plan office has increasingly gained popularity across the global workplace as it breaks down barriers between employees, promotes collaboration and reduces space per head substantially. In the wake of COVID-19, companies are increasingly ditching the open-plan layout and hotdesking. Some have set up physical barriers and partitions on desks, while some have adopted staggered seating plans to minimise unnecessary contact between staff. Office workers may not be returning to cubicles, but working spaces and the number of staff present will change. The days when we could meet colleagues over a coffee or tea at a bustling canteen are gone. Imagine a post-COVID lunch meeting: bring-your-own lunch boxes whilst joining a virtual conference at desks located across different levels of the same building.
According to a survey by the architecture design firm Gensler, even when given unprecedented freedom of choice in terms of where to work, most people still rank ‘My company’s workplace’ before other options, such as home and café, as their first choice. This echoes findings from previous conversations with people across sectors in the UK. The ‘US work from home survey 2020’ reveals that after the pandemic, 70% of people would prefer to go back to the office for the majority of the week. Flexible working arrangements and working from home used to be a privilege and benefit for some. For many people whose work is desktop-based, being able to work from home and attend the office on a part-time basis can be the most fulfilling option.
Do we miss our office? The answer for most people is YES, as per the Gensler report. There are perks of working from home, less commute, more time with family, etc., but there are perhaps more drawbacks than we expect – lack of human interaction, disruption from children, lack of office equipment, and the list goes on. A central space to meet and work will continue to play a crucial role in the future.
A workplace is a human-centric place where we meet and collaborate. Long hours of Zoom meetings cannot replace the actual face-to-face human interactions attained when working in an office. Video conferencing applications drain users of energy as employees have to work much harder to detect body language communication. Many interactive tasks are easy to complete when physically present but much harder remotely. While video conferencing can enable a business to maintain the status quo, learning and growing is a much harder task.
We are very aware of the impact on events and conferences, and that this is likely to harm our ability to network. Many of us grow our network and stay in touch with our connections through conferences and seminars. With offices designed to segregate people to reduce the chance of transmission, socialisation will likely take new forms, in smaller groups. Working under the same roof offers a sense of community and culture, something that is impossible to replicate at home.
From our conversations with many UK businesses, we find that people are experiencing significant changes in the post-pandemic office. Surveys show that people prefer to work in offices, at least in a part-time capacity and features such as human interaction and networking are crucial to growing business.