Over the last ten years, the workplace has transformed from closed offices with cubicle partitions to an open layout that offers an ecosystem of spaces to support different kinds of work and different ways of working.
Before the pandemic, employee wellbeing and inclusivity were poised to take centre stage in the next iteration of the workplace. Workplace design promised to foreground our sense of wellbeing, purpose and productivity as individuals and as teams.
And while no one would have wished for the pandemic, it’s become a catalyst for accelerating this agenda.
People have experienced newfound autonomy and empowerment from being able to work from home. They’ve discovered what they need from the work environment to do their best work and to feel well and whole.
There is a positive story emerging. As organisations shift their attention to how our working lives will be resumed post-covid, many are seeing this as an opportunity to improve people’s work/life balance and drive real positive change throughout the workplace.
When the UK was first forced into lockdown, companies quickly adapted to working from home. And many people reported positive experiences.
Workers found being at home away from the distractions of the office supported their ability to focus and gave them the flexibility they needed to maintain a healthy work/life balance.
They enjoyed being more in control of their daily lives, liberated from long commutes and given more freedom and trust - as employers had no choice but to embrace new ways of working.
The Gensler UK Workplace Survey 2020 conducted in August 2020 found that:
There was an environmental upside too. Lower levels of commuting and reduced travel had a significant impact on air quality. During the first nine weeks of the UK lockdown, nitrogen dioxide along London’s roads decreased by an average of 31% compared with the pre-lockdown period.
And as companies reported increased productivity and realised they could significantly reduce their real estate costs, rumours of the imminent death of the office began to swirl.
But some continued to advocate for the office. Some argued workers were only able to adapt so quickly because of the social capital already built up from the countless hours spent together in the office before the crisis. Shutting offices altogether couldn’t possibly be a long-term solution for companies wanting to thrive, could it?
The switch to home working was hardest for those living in environments not conducive to getting work done. According to research by JLL, professionals under 35 struggled more than any other generation to feel accomplished working at home. They missed having an environment where they could focus, an ergonomic workstation, and the ability to work in different spaces.
Soon enough, the novelty of working from home began to wear off even amongst those who at first revelled in their newfound freedom.
A report from The British Contract Furnishing Association (BCFA), ‘The Future of the Office and Office Workers’, revealed how the shift to home working negatively impacted on wellbeing and productivity during the pandemic:
The office is more than just a place to do work. It’s a place where we solve problems, innovate, connect with people and form life-long friendships.
According to Gensler’s research, these are the top reasons UK workers want to go to the office:
Gensler’s research also found that the more time people spend in the office, the more time they spend collaborating:
UK employees working in the office full time spend 53% of their time collaborating with others, either in-person or virtually. Those working at home full time spend just 25% of their time collaborating with others.
The Steelcase Workspace Futures report revealed similar findings:
63% of workers saw a decline in time spent working with others during the pandemic.
Vaibhav Gujral, Partner at McKinsey & Company, sums up what workers have been missing about the office:
“We were missing the ‘heartbeat’ of the workplace: the energy that comes from serendipitous encounters that aren’t boxed into Zoom screens; the creativity that comes from spontaneous collaboration; the trust and relationships that are built through countless and unsaid small gestures and interactions.”
People working from home can feel isolated and lonely, leaving them to feel disengaged and disconnected. Being in the office surrounded by colleagues reinforces a sense of belonging and purpose that improves wellbeing and fosters productivity, creativity and innovation.
Collaborating over Zoom can be difficult as body language and unspoken behaviours can easily be missed - plus it can be exhausting. The office supports collaboration by providing a space for teams to build on each other’s ideas, make revisions and bring new concepts to life.
Virtual meetings don’t support the ebb and flow of the creative process required for teams to innovate. The design of the workplace supports connections between people and promotes innovative activities like sharing content, testing prototypes and building on efforts in real-time.
Despite wanting to return to the office, one of the things people will be keen to hold onto is the greater autonomy they’ve experienced while working from home.
As a consequence, we’re likely to see companies adopt more flexible working strategies, where employees have greater control over where and when they work. Many anticipate a hybrid workforce, with employees splitting their time between the office and the home.
Each way of working has its own value, but neither can replace the other. Combining and leveraging the best of both worlds is likely to become the new normal.
A global study by Cushman & Wakefield supports this notion:
73% of the workforce believes their company should embrace some level of working from home
The researchers go so far to say that “the workplace will no longer be a single location but an ecosystem of a variety of locations and experiences to support convenience, functionality and wellbeing.”
They predict that 50% of the workforce will likely be working across a “Total Workplace Ecosystem” balancing office, home and third places.
According to the BCFA, a flexible working model “best facilitates balance, reduces stress and improves employee wellbeing more than solely working from either the home or the office.”
Homeworking is likely to play an important role in leading an organisation’s people strategy moving forward. Organisations will need to provide workers with greater control over where, when and how they work if they want to attract and retain the best talent.
People may choose to go into the office to meet and collaborate with others and stay at home for deep thinking and more focused work.
If this is to be the new reality, there is now a greater imperative to make sure offices and homes are furnished and equipped properly to accommodate a hybrid workforce.
For work that remains anchored in the workplace, greater attention will need to be paid to how furniture can be kept clean, shared or readjusted to support a more mobile workforce to undertake tasks in a safe and efficient way.
Workplaces may need to import some of the home comforts workers have become used to at home. A global study by JLL conducted at the end of April 2020 found that people enjoyed many of the human and personal touches that are more typical of home settings:
This might mean more relaxed spaces and services that can be personalised to people’s preferences.
At the same time, home working is here to stay. And a focus will need to be placed on ensuring employees have access to a comfortable and productive workspace at home. This may involve providing them with equipment such as ergonomic chairs and second screens.
Some companies are reaching out to suppliers who are able to facilitate a rapid delivery of these products to the home addresses of their employees. Others are offering home office budgets or reimbursement schemes to help workers kit out their home office. These initiatives are likely to become the norm as home working continues to be a bigger part of our lives in a post-covid world.
Organisations are being forced to think urgently about how work should be done and the role of the office in a post-covid world.
Do you need the same office space you had before the pandemic? Should you downsize or decentralise?
What does your office space need to look like to be safe and compelling for your workers?
How can you balance the benefits of having an office space against the cost to your business?
The answer to what you do with your office space will be different for every organisation. It will depend on the type of work you do, how much collaboration is necessary to achieve excellence, and where your offices are located.
Two of the key factors you will need to take into account when making decisions about the future of your workplace are:
Your people are your biggest asset. So you must start with the question: what is going to make your people most effective?
Annemieke Garskamp works as a Senior Consultant in the Applied Research + Consulting (ARC) team at Steelcase. The team works with organisations to understand their work behaviours and preferences and create a workplace that supports those needs while allowing the organisation to meet their specific goals.
Annemieke believes we need to pay attention to the lessons we can harvest from the ‘work from home’ experiment so that we can make our work processes and our workplaces better:
Your first port of call is to find out what your employees are thinking and feeling. Do they want to come back to the office? What do they want that office to look like? What are they going to need in order to feel safe and be productive? Sending a simple survey out to your employees will give you a good idea of where they are.
The leadership perspective will also be important. What impact has home working had on your ability to manage and get the best out of people? And what impact has that had on your culture?
From here, you can start to think about what the impact on the office will be and how the office can be used to accommodate new demands.
If you decide to bring people back to the office, you may choose to do so in waves. The extra space you have can be used to pilot new furniture configurations or prototypes.
Across the world, radical office remodelling efforts are underway. Organisations with leases coming up for renewal are thinking carefully about whether to re-sign. According to the BCFA, approximately 2m sq. ft. of office space deals have been put on hold or cancelled since March 2020.
Some organisations are choosing to downsize or relocate from larger metropolitan HQs to smaller, regional satellite offices. The business benefits by saving on costs and workers benefit because they no longer have to spend two hours on a train getting into the city each day.
Others are redesigning their office space to support a ‘virtual first’ or more flexible working strategy. This is likely to be the norm as it combines the best of both worlds. Workers get to come into the office to connect and collaborate with others, while balancing that with one or two days a week at home where they have more freedom to balance their working day with their personal lives.
Then there are a small minority of companies, typically smaller businesses, who are giving up their office space altogether.
If you haven’t yet decided what to do with your office space, the key is to think about what space will be required to foster your desired outcomes in terms of productivity, collaboration, culture, and the work experience.
The pandemic has given us an opportunity to create the offices that people have always wanted: a safe space where people can enjoy their work, connect and collaborate with others, and achieve the objectives of their organisations.
But should you choose to bring people back to the office, it won’t happen overnight. Despite the vaccine roll-out, many people will still be cautious about travelling on public transport and mixing with others in the workplace, and these concerns will need to be respected.
Workers will not come back to the office if they are asked to work in ways that are not or don’t feel safe.
To encourage people back to the office, at least in the short term, you will need to focus on retrofitting what you already have to adhere to governmental health guidelines.
Steelcase point out that to make workplaces covid secure, we need to think about the three dimensions of safety:
Density - How can your existing assets be remodelled and modified to create a safe distance between occupants? - e.g. do you need to remove 50% of seating in meeting rooms and do benches and desks need to be lengthened or subdivided to allow people to sit 2m+ apart?
Division - Can existing screens be reused to create divisions, or will new barriers and shields need to be added to allow people to work safely at their desks?
Geometry - How can the layout of the office be changed to enable better and safer flow through the building? Can you re-orient workstations away from a standard linear approach and reconfigure desks so people aren’t sitting face-to-face without a barrier?
An office furniture audit can help you work out where your current asset stock can be deployed to answer these needs and where you may need new equipment, such as screens.
Beyond the layout and design of the office, new health and safety measures will need to be put in place:
Some organisations are introducing air purifiers to mitigate the risk of airborne virus transmission in the workplace.
Air purifiers are typically made of a filter (or multiple filters) and a fan designed to suck in and circulate air. As air moves through the filter, pollutants and particles are captured while clean air is pushed back out into the surrounding space. They can range from small and portable domestic units, to wheeled and wall-mounted, high capacity commercial products.
Models with HEPA filters, also known as ‘High-Efficiency Particulate Air Filter’ are considered to be most effective. For example, the Aeramax Professional range is certified to be effective in reaching 99.9% airborne virus reduction within the first 35 minutes of operation.
Even before covid, worker sickness and sick building syndrome impacted levels of absenteeism and productivity in modern offices. The way that cold and flu sweeps through teams in a normal business year is evidence that breathing unpurified and recirculated air in poorly ventilated buildings can spread illness.
Air purifiers are a simple and cost-effective method for maintaining clean and healthy air. They can have a profoundly positive effect on the welfare of your people and help create a healthy office environment.
Creating a post-covid workplace requires more than just getting the safety elements right.
We look at three models of what the workplace could look like and the design strategies that will bring them to life:
In organisations where all workers return to the office on a full-time basis, workplace design strategies will need to focus on creating a compelling and safe space that strengthens culture and performance.
Spaces for collaboration and socialisation will need to be safe, comfortable and inspiring. Staggering tables and chairs and placing biophilia to help create vibrant settings will allow employees to come together and work at a safe distance. Screens can be added to support acoustic, visual and informational privacy - all of which will help people feel at ease and free to share ideas.
Spaces for individual work will need to allow individuals to focus as well as they could at home. These spaces could include pods and booths or larger no-tech zones and should be fitted with furniture that aids different postures, from task chairs to sofas for lounging.
Adequate social distancing will create a sense of safety and boundaries created by screens and biophilia will provide psychological comfort and security. Furniture and equipment made from antimicrobial materials that prevent the spread of bacteria will be ideal, as will air purifiers to promote healthy air quality and a regular cleaning regime.
As well as social connection, workers will be craving the tools an office gives them, such as ergonomic office seating, height-adjustable desks, largescale collaboration technology, whiteboards and printers.
Spaces and furniture will need to become more adaptable so workers can personalise the space to suit how they want to work. The trend towards hackable spaces was growing before the pandemic, but the need for greater control over the workspace will be heightened now people have experienced the autonomy of working from home. Moveable furniture, task chairs with adjustable features and height-adjustable desks will give workers a greater sense of control over their work.
The pandemic has brought health and wellbeing into sharp focus and the office will need to conform to the highest standards. Furniture that supports a range of postures can reduce the physical stress that affects productivity. Introducing biophilia through plant life and natural materials can contribute to better wellbeing. Likewise, outdoor spaces can be leveraged for socialising and collaboration. And meditation rooms and no-tech zones fitted with comfortable furniture provide space for relaxation and rejuvenation.
Office environments with fixed furniture will need to become more fluid to allow organisations to adjust the space and quickly and easily in the event of another wave of the virus or another pandemic. No one knows what the future will hold and future office spaces need to be designed with future disruption in mind. Reconfigurations may include adding casters to desks, screens and storage units so they can be moved to accommodate greater and less social distancing.
For a mobile workforce who split their time between the office and the home, the workplace needs to be reimagined as a space that allows people to come together to work on projects and get things done.
Workplace design should shift to focus on collaboration, connection and socialisation.
Before the pandemic, collaboration would take place in traditional, enclosed meeting rooms or open agile working spaces. These spaces will need to become higher performing, inspiring, and safe. Flexibility is a necessity. Collaborative workspaces need to support a range of postures, access to power, and the ability to control the level of privacy while feeling relaxed and comfortable.
Teams will need spaces where they can surround themselves in their project and display their thinking and ideas. Spaces they can reconfigure on their own to suit work flows and changes through the project, with moveable chairs, desks, and boards.
Video conferencing involving a group of people sitting around a table while others join remotely from a screen at the side isn’t a sustainable solution. Introducing ‘always-on video conferencing’ (more suited to enclosed spaces over open for acoustical privacy) and digital platforms (such as virtual whiteboards) that allow team members to co-create content will be far more effective.
People coming into the office to meet with others may also need periods of the day to dedicate to focused work, and they will need space to do so effectively. Screens and meeting rooms will provide privacy and reduce noise levels, allowing people to focus, while ergonomic task chairs and height-adjustable desks will enable them to work comfortably.
Whether you choose to bring all workers back to the office or support a more flexible working arrangement, you’re going to need to audit your assets and begin to assess how they can be best deployed to help transform your business.
In a workspace more geared towards collaboration, rows of desks may be replaced with furniture that supports people to work together in teams. This may leave many organisations with furniture they no longer need.
There may be more life and potential in your existing assets than you thought, or there could be alternative options for recycling or disposal that you haven’t yet considered and can drive real value for your company
Where the majority of employees continue to work remotely, the office may be reimagined as an engagement or ‘innovation’ hub where people can gather in a club-like environment. It will become a destination that endorses a social and cultural purpose.
As a hub for people to come together, the workplace needs to nurture a team’s sense of belonging and purpose. Colours, aesthetics and artwork that are on brand and make the most of the locality can help people feel connected to the space.
With independent work expected to be done at home, individual workstations will be a rare sight. Instead, groups of sofas, coffee tables, chairs and cafe tables will fit out most of the office space. These spaces will need to be supported by tools like whiteboards and digital screens to help teams record ideas and reach a shared understanding. By making these moveable, they can be pulled out and moved away as needed.
In hospitality, people travel or visit hotels for an experience, and the ‘innovation hub’ should provide an experience for employees. Think immersive environments that stimulate and energise people, with more natural materials and plant life to inspire creativity.
All the evidence suggests that homeworking is here to stay. And you have a responsibility as an employer to help your employees work from home safely.
As the HSE points out:
“Employers have the same health and safety responsibilities for employees working from home as for any other employees, including the duty not to charge for things done or provided pursuant to their specific requirements.”
Here are some ways you can support the physical and mental wellbeing of your employees at home:
Source homeworking furniture and equipment
Organisations can no longer rely on employees’ improvised homeworking adaptations or on high street products that are not built to withstand the duration and requirements of commercial office furniture. You have a responsibility to source homeworking furniture and equipment such as ergonomic chairs and second screens to help avoid discomfort, fatigue and the potential for more serious musculoskeletal issues long term.
One study found that, on average, people working from home are sitting roughly 2 hours and 40 minutes longer per day than people that work in the office. It’s imperative that workers don’t feel chained to their desks at home to ‘prove’ their productivity. So encourage them to keep moving my scheduling time to get up and go for a walk, grab a coffee or take a break.
Limit virtual meetings
Too much Zoom can lead to overstimulation and visual migraines. Limit the number of virtual meetings people participate in a day and make sure route calls have repeatable and understood agendas so they don’t last longer than they need to.
Encourage workers to stick to a routine and their normal working hours while working from home, and to take regular breaks.
The coronavirus pandemic has given people a chance to get what they’ve always wanted - more control over how and where they work.
In a post-covid world, adopting flexible working strategies that allow people to work from home will have a profound effect on their quality of life and your ability to attract and retain the best talent.
But the office will remain as an irreplaceable source of human connection. And its role as a space to connect, collaborate and socialise will be more important than ever.
The most successful organisations in the future will be those who pay attention to the lessons learned from the last 12 months and use them to improve the work experience for their people and to drive real, positive change throughout the workplace.