Top 6 Long-Term Trends Emerging From the Pandemic and What They Mean for Office Design

Face it. You thought this could be a nice change of pace—maybe work leisurely at your sunny kitchen table for a week—two weeks tops—while enjoying a cup of your favorite weekend coffee every morning! You could be more hands-on with the kids and their schoolwork and maybe enjoy a nice after-dinner walk now that you have all that time saved from your commute.

How did that work out? The answer is that it has worked pretty well, all things considered.

Third-party surveys from Leesman and others have shown widespread satisfaction with the new work-from-home paradigm, and almost all forecasts for the future see at least a hybrid model of work split between offices, neighborhood hubs, third places and home.

Long-term Trends 
Six broad themes characterize the pandemic’s long-term effects on the workplace, measuring sticks of sorts to evaluate all the micro and macro moves that will enable and entice employees to return safely—and enthusiastically—to the office. Credit: Photography by Joe Aker

This is the first long-term implication of the pandemic, and it is worth noting that the COVID-19 outbreak, rather than being a cause of this change, is really an accelerator. The idea of employee choice in when and where work happens, the accommodation of activity-based work settings and the advent of workplaces that integrate employee experience with organizational productivity are standing ideas of workplace design in recent years; now they take center stage.

Overlaid with an obvious uncertainty about returning to the office and a shifting menu of likely physical changes—even a fundamental questioning of the very need for office space—how do you measure the changing landscape of the workplace?  What’s opinion, and what’s simply anecdotal?  What’s going to stick, and what’s just a temporary fix?

6 Ways to Entice Employees to Return to the Office

Six broad themes characterize the pandemic’s long-term effects on the workplace. Think of these as measuring sticks of sorts to evaluate all the micro and macro moves that will enable and entice employees to return safely—and enthusiastically—to the office.

1. Use disruption as your ally.

The good news is that there is great opportunity in all the noise. Disruption creates a chance to recalibrate the what and the why of any workplace and identifies the elements that will be important going forward. Importantly, the good ideas you had in February are still good ideas—some of them more important than ever.

Think of the pandemic as an accelerant of good ideas, not the cause of (unwelcome) change.

HP Inc
Easily reconfigurable walls and furniture, the ability to quickly support and shift between both “We work” and “Me work” settings, and truly modular planning and building systems will support a resilient space where physical changes are simple, easy and low cost. Credit: Scott McDonald at Gray City Studios

2. Solve for the whole person.

The best workplace will balance both employees’ emotional needs—connecting with others, health and wellbeing, a sense of community—with their intellectual needs—time and space to focus, opportunity to learn and creative freedom.

[Related: How Will Our Spaces Change as We Continue to Practice Social Distancing?]

Understanding what motivates an organization’s workers and translating that into the physical workplace has always been indicative of the most effective offices. A workplace that can explicitly exhibit that sense that something important happens here and that employees are valued, is a workplace that will drive value and amplify the impact of the people who work there.

Further, the workplace should have a purpose and drive a sense of belonging. A successful workplace has an urban vibe—something special is going on here.  There is action and energy. The most effective workplaces amplify a feeling of collegiality; you feel like you are part of something special, and you are working to a greater good.

And finally, the best workplace connects people back to nature: A view, access to daylight, a connection to outdoor space or integration of biophilic elements can all add to the sense of time and space to focus or clear the mind or let creativity flow—to take a walk in the park.

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Booth3. Practice resilience.

Who really believes this is the last time we will experience a pandemic? Or even as we work out of this one, once returned to the office, you must return working from home when there is an outbreak in your workplace, or your elevator bank, or your building. The workplace will become more resilient and exhibit flexibility to better accommodate disruptions to the work world.

Easily reconfigurable walls and furniture, the ability to quickly support and shift between both “We work” and “Me work” settings, and truly modular planning and building systems will support a resilient space where physical changes are simple, easy and low cost.

(Pictured: The best workplaces connect people back to nature: A view, access to daylight, a connection to outdoor space or integration of biophilic elements can all add to the sense of time and space to focus or clear the mind or let creativity flow—to take a walk in the park. Credit: Scott McDonald at Gray City Studio)

4. Embrace technology.

Every meeting will accommodate both virtual and in-person participants, ubiquitous connectivity will allow data and networks to be accessed from anywhere and hardware solutions will support productive work wherever an employee may be. Tools and technology that are not available at home will be the hallmark of the new office, and they will help serve as that compelling glue to entice workers to return to the workplace and practice real and effective collaboration.

5. Amplify collaboration.

The workplace is foundationally a place that brings people together to do their best work. Surveys and anecdotes all show that the home office is generally great for heads-down focus work, for quiet thinking time, privacy, and one-on-one meetings—albeit via Zoom calls!

[Listen now: Explore How Working From Home Affects Designers]

But impromptu interaction, running into people at the coffee bar, brainstorming and group creativity is still best supported in the collaborative part of the workplace spectrum. This duality of Me work and We work give credence to the future being about a combination of workplaces with workers increasingly empowered to choose when and where to get work done.

6. Shepherd every dollar.

Organizations are asking whether it is better to make the office compelling enough to entice people back or whether budgets are better leveraged to help people be as productive as they can be at home.

The likely answer to this quandary will be some combination of both with a natural tension between these opposing camps that will require every budget, every project and every expenditure to be carefully scrutinized. The biggest bang for the buck won’t just be a shop-worn phrase, but a real measurable metric, and the emphasis will focus on business performance.

Energy Firm
Tools and technology that are not available at home will be the hallmark of the new office, and they will help serve as that compelling glue to entice workers to return to the workplace and practice real and effective collaboration. Credit: Peter Molick

Investing in this new redefined workplace will be a competitive advantage to attract and retain the best and brightest. Once the economy comes back, talent will hold the upper hand, and employees will pick and choose organizations that invested in people through compelling work settings and flexible work models.

The commonality here is that the successful workplace is, first and foremost, human-centric.

This was true in February, but it is more important than ever. Since employees have now been entrusted with choosing when and where to work, they will have to be enticed back with a compelling workplace that puts an organization’s most valuable resource—its people—first and foremost and clearly supports both the emotional and the intellectual needs of the people who work there.

Clean, safe, sanitized workspaces are simply table stakes; the organization that truly puts its people first will the organization that thrives and accelerates out of the chaos.

Author: Jackie Wheat, principal, managing director of Design + Brand Services, PDR

Jackie Wheat, principal, managing director of Design + Brand Services of PDR, is an innovator who shapes the world by unleashing the hidden potential in people. Design is her driver. Workplace is her medium.

Read next: How Will Education Design Change in a Post-Pandemic Environment?


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