“Who said the old office was all that great to begin with?” CBRE Canada Vice Chairman Paul Morassutti quipped in his recent Market Outlook presentation.
With vaccine distribution ramping up, a return to the office looms on the horizon. However, many employees are underwhelmed at the prospect of returning to the workplace full time. Surveys show that most employees do not want to go back to the way things were, but it might be less about the comforts of home and more a reflection of what offices were lacking.
The war for talent was already pushing the workplace to evolve into a better version of itself, and the pandemic will likely accelerate this movement. Companies have the opportunity to keep the best part of office culture and processes while addressing inefficiencies, said Stewart Butterfield, CEO and co-founder of Slack.
“We all know that work will never be the same, even if we don’t yet know all the ways in which it will be different,” he wrote. “What we can say with certainty is that the sudden shift to distributed work has provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine everything about how we do our jobs and how we run our companies.”
Here are 5 ways that the office will be reimagined for the better:
Office space design is undergoing a transition. There will be more space needed between co-workers and a greater portion of the office floorplan will be dedicated to collaborative areas.
“Densification will take a hiatus,” Janet Pogue-McLaurin, Gensler’s Global Workplace Practice Areas leader, told Vox. Workstations will be spaced further apart, conference rooms de-populated and space-dividing partitions erected to provide greater physical separation.
Salesforce has already de-densified its office space in its operations across Asia, with office floors redesigned to accommodate only 40% to 50% of previous capacity.
Julie Whelan, CBRE’s Head of Occupier Research for the Americas, predicts that the office of the future will have more common space than personal space. Traditional offices are about 80% cubicles and 20% common space; Whelan expects there will be a reversal of this ratio.
Frank Weishaupt, CEO of Owl Labs, writes in Fast Company that the virtual setting has democratized meetings.
Managers have observed that the pandemic-induced need to meet virtually has resulted in a greater number of employees participating in the exchange of ideas. Shy or more junior employees are finding it easier to speak up in a virtual meeting, where glimpses into the domestic settings of their co-workers can be more equalizing than the formal setting of a conference room.
This spirit of democracy is something that companies are taking note of and will want to make sure is replicated in the new workplace.
Technology will be embraced to create a more connected and safer workplace.
Companies are investing in digital collaboration technologies that will continue to be used post pandemic. This technology will be built into every room so that they can be transformed easily into dynamic collaborative spaces regardless of where the employee is located.
Touchless technology is being applied in the workplace to reduce the transmission of viruses. Nestlé added a feature to its coffeemakers that lets employees select their choice by holding their hand over the menu options. Motion-activated faucets and soap dispensers, hands-free sanitizing and automated entrances are other areas where touchless technology is being enabled.
According to a 2020 report by McKinsey, companies that adopt the highest degree of touchless technology gain a competitive edge, as the risk to their employees and to their overall operations is reduced.
4. Health & Wellness
Companies will exercise more vigilance when it comes to the health and wellbeing of their employees.
Buildings that are WELL-certified – like many of CBRE’s Canadian offices – and those that have superior HVAC systems will become more sought-after. The most recent Office Tenant Survey by Canadian Real Estate Conferences identified upgraded HVAC systems as one of the key improvements desired most by tenants.
Biophilic design – aimed at increasing occupant connectivity to the natural environment -- will become a part of the office fabric to help clean the air, lower stress and boost cognitive function.
Self-cleaning surfaces will be utilized to remove debris or bacteria. One company, NanoSeptic, uses skins and mats to turn dirty, high-traffic public touchpoints like elevator buttons and door handles into continuously self-cleaning surfaces.
“COVID-19 has accelerated the healthy buildings movement,” said Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard University. “Every sector is now talking about what they need to do for health in the building, for COVID-19, infectious disease transmission and beyond.”
Jed Walentas, owner of U.S. investment company Two Trees Management, believes pre-COVID-19 office expectations were impractical. “If you’ve got two and a half million people in Brooklyn, why is it rational or efficient for all those people to schlep into Manhattan and work every day?” he asked in a New York Times interview. “That’s how we used to do it yesterday. It’s not rational now.”
In 2019, workplace experience firm Leesman interviewed 700,000 employees from 4,800 companies and discovered that 40% of tenants felt that their workplace did not enable them to work productively.
The office will continue to play an important role within a company as the place where onboarding, collaboration, training, mentoring and team building occurs. Work that requires focus is better performed in a quiet, solitary environment.
“The physical office will absolutely continue to be part of future of work, but it will be designed to support flexibility and choice.”
“The physical office will absolutely continue to be part of future of work, but it will be designed to support flexibility and choice,” CBRE’s Paul Morassutti said in his recent Market Outlook presentation.
“Some companies will be fully distributed, with their employees working from places around the globe, while others will be more traditional and required their employees to be in the office full time. The vast majority will fall somewhere in between these two models.”