Covid-19 pandemic forces us to make changes at workplaces. As the future of the workplace may look different from here on, office space needs a combination of creativity and innovation to sustain
By MV Harish
Over the past three decades, workplace trends have drastically changed. And this has changed the workplace formats and design. Track lights, over-padded couches and cubed seating of the 1980s were replaced by computer-enabled offices, with open desks in 1990s followed by concepts of hot-desking and greater mobility in 2000s. Workplaces of the last decade have seen more open spaces, break out zones and modern conveniences with flexible formats. Workplace evolution has been constant. But the seemingly simple transformation has been an outcome of various trends. Over the period, the combination of multiple factors has been impacting the change. Some of these changes across offices will remain forever.
But the trend shows per person shrinkage of spaces. Modern technologies encouraging agile working, focus on business cost reduction and increased productivity through new workplace models have led to the shrinking of offices. The average amount of space per office employee in 2019 has shrunk to 100 sq ft from 225 sq ft observed in 2010. This trend may see a reversal; average amount of space per office employee may again increase with the new protocols.
What do we witness now?
In the past decade, workplace innovations have seen some new kinds of product and design mix. Focus is more on community spaces like the cafeteria and lounges, space for collaborative working and IT and concierge service desks. The reimagined workplace has improved creativity and incubated a culture of entrepreneurship. However, the base of creativity is more often human experience. Employees spending a significant amount of their time in their offices need a workplace that rewards them through an enriching experience.
The shock of the ‘new normal’
The workplaces have been evolving toward futuristic models. However, the COVID-19 catastrophe has put brakes on all kinds of innovative strides at the workplace. With the pandemic threatening our peaceful existence, countries across the globe have undergone lockdowns to prevent the spread of the disease. This has translated into restricted movement of citizens and has forced them to work from home. Overnight physical interaction and collaboration reduced to online meetings and calls over Skype and Microsoft teams.
But several factors now compel companies to bring back the workforce to offices. Concerns over productivity drop, operational efficiency, data theft, cybersecurity and rising stress levels of employees working from home have been bothering leaders and company managements. Most importantly, in the absence of the physical office presence, the workforce is under stress.
Most real estate stakeholders like planners, architects, landlords, occupiers and product providers are now looking at the challenge with a problem solving attitude. Return to offices might be different. The preliminary phase of the return might throw some more challenges and help us understand the problems keeping in mind the long term sustainability goals across workplaces. This means what was envisaged some years back for our workplace will have to be reinvented and re-thought in current circumstances.
The base of the new strategy would be to think about the safety of the workforce. Hence, social distancing norms, concepts of cleanliness and de-densification will be the new normal. Several firms have already distributed welcome kits to returning employees. These kits may contain hand sanitizer, face masks, gloves, and a wiping cloth and other related items of cleaning.
Re-configuration of meeting rooms, occupancy around the workplace will also be considered. Big break out areas will then be planned. Office cafes will have separate kind of seating arrangements. Everywhere, a minimum 2 meter gap will be followed. This will also mean the use of flexible furniture that can easily be moved or remodeled for better use. Here, innovative designs can help in reducing the increase in area usage. For example, standing meeting instead of sitting can reduce the overall square footage/meter demands.
With time these norms and practices employees will come to terms with the change and will give them some relief to people who are already confined in their homes from the past five months. But this will all be done basis the use of technology, smart monitoring devices, use of smart cleaning materials and furniture that kills and reduces the instances of microbial activities and infection. This is especially true for open, breakout areas and office cafes, where there will be a need to introduce contactless technology to order and deliver food, monitor occupancy and do other related activities.
What is next for the workplace?
The future of workplace revolves around five dimensions which will propel the new workplace designs. The incorporation of these aspects at the workplace will corroborate the effect of the pandemic going forward. These are (1) Human experience, (2) Digital drive, (3) Continuous innovation, (4) Operational excellence, and (5) Financial performance. All these work in tandem with each other. They co-exist!
With human experience being at the core of all the sustainable best practices in the workplace, the use of data and technology will improve the performance of both the company and the individual. Most occupiers/tenants are now asking for integrated workplace solutions instead of standalone ones. Contactless, information gathering devices and solutions will enhance the user experience. Operational excellence will be achieved through continuous innovation.
Over time the office will become less focused on desk based work and the ‘Hub and Club’ model will become increasingly common place. All signs point towards a diverse future corporate ecosystem that may include out of town hubs offering short individual commutes and purpose led HQs supported by remote working.
But keep an eye on cost
The adherence to new protocols will require sizeable investments for technology and design upgrade. The current debate is to maintain a balance between the old and the new normal. The discussion will be between maintaining growth in the long term and running the work daily. However, between technology, connectivity and wellbeing, it is always the privacy, health and safety will win.
The foreseeable post-COVID workplace would be a unique blend of the regular office space integrated with technology and re-configured workplace. Leaders and industry have to be ready for change.
(The author is Managing Director, Project & Development Services (PDS), India, JLL. Views expressed are personal.)