Is the idea of an office HQ or a central business district still alive and kicking post COVID-19, and what will the office of the future look like?
The pandemic has given us the opportunity to build a secure, intelligent, and diverse workplace platform that solves some of the world’s greatest problems at scale.
COVID-19 will not empty cities, rather cities will adapt. It will not be the death of the HQ office as organisations still need a home. But COVID-19 has demonstrated the viability and desirability of physical offices that better leverage the connections, capabilities and collaboration potential of the internet. The post pandemic workplace needs to provide an attractive and effective spatial space that is filled by its users, its project teams, and its departments.
Our connection to colleagues is the pivotal thing that brings value to an office; the ability to inspire, to innovate, to be mentored, to learn, to form creative ideas together, and to have those serendipitous encounters which bring us delight and foster success throughout the day. That value translates to efficiency and productivity, and offices – not zoom calls – are uniquely placed to deliver it.
What have we discovered?
The pandemic has been an enforced experiment, a rapid test of emerging workplace theory, accelerating changes to our digital and spatial organisation. As I write this, two thirds of office workers in some sectors are still working remotely.1
We have learned that we can continue to function as organisations, just differently and not always as productively on the collective aspects of work. We have seen that tasks which are process driven are far more easily achieved in the current working conditions than those that demand close collaboration. We have realised that we are missing our connection to colleagues, our opportunities to learn, chat, team up and bring minds together to solve complex challenges.
We also see the inequalities growing and generational gaps widening. Just as the internet tends to amplify extremes, the pandemic has thrown a lens on the difficulties of no or poor access to the internet. Despite the internet’s ability to connect us to a world of information, we have become more aware of its potential to narrow our horizons, feeding us the views of people who are like us, to similar thought rather than the diversity we encounter in the real world of work.
Is working from home proving popular?
Some early research suggested that only 20%2 of office workers want to return full time, but as the pandemic has dragged on through second and third lockdowns, we see a greater desire to return to the office full time, or for at least three days a week.
Having achieved some level of normality working from home, many employees are nervous about their return. Arguably it is not the concept of the office environment that employees fear, it is the commute. Not having to endure it has reminded us how unpleasant it can be.
What will our return to work look like?
Each country has weathered the COVID-19 storm in its own way, for better or worse. We know that little has changed in New Zealand. In Russia, it is as if there is no pandemic, and an American is still happy to get in their car and travel cross state. Is Europe different from the UK? We will see. There is however no doubt that the pandemic has prioritised and accelerated the adoption of health and wellbeing strategies. The future office will embrace balance, fitness, and the environment but also sustainability.
In many ways we can imagine that our new workplace will feel familiar, but will be organised in a very different way, with more integrated technology, wellness and sustainability. We see distributed sets of workers according to projects, themes and departments. We will be mobile within the office, from co-working spaces, or even at home, where autonomous workers are linked by communication networks, working individually, and in teams.
The future workplace will be in an intelligent building but what does that mean?
We should think of buildings not as individual entities but as part of an intelligent network – with the HQ as a key point within the network, with remote hubs and the home desk.
Typically, pre-pandemic utilisation was at 60% for an office3, presenteeism and absenteeism was high, and there was a lack of management trust. This meant that many corporate real estate occupiers, rather than embracing the opportunity of working with the 60% utilisation would still drive an office with 1:1 desking – a seat for every employee - and did not fully embrace technology.
Now it is likely that most will see the advantages of a corporate real estate portfolio being made up of hubs, located strategically in key places. We will create an ecosystem of physical and virtual experiences that support our convenience, functionality, sustainability, and wellness.
How will we attract workers back to the office?
The post pandemic office building needs to actively entice employees to leave the comforts and convenience of working from home, providing experiences that are inspirational, innovative, educational, and support our community needs.
Spotify recently announced it will try to make its offices feel more like home, and it is not the first business to do this. Biophilic design and the mimic of nature already exists and the more ubiquitous and intelligent our buildings become, the more we wish to connect to humanity, nature, our environment, and community.
To bring workers back to our city centres, we can see the office also becoming ever more like a city itself. Where before we experienced landlords and occupiers squeezing as many people as possible into a building and reducing the amenity space, we are already seeing the change - imagine less dense (1 person per 12m2), agile offices with health clinics provided in all major office buildings, supporting physios, doctors and dentists, meeting and auditorium spaces shared by offices and even hotels, with touch down project areas and flexible team spaces.
- Without workplaces we lose creativity, productivity, community, and diversity.
- Un-reformed and unloved workplaces are better in the past.
- We are now entering a race for quality and amenity – to attract and entice workers back.
- Lessons from lockdown will rapidly accelerate technology adoption.
- We will create networks of connected workplaces.
- The desk is no longer king, and the squeeze for density is over.
- Our offices and cities will adapt, evolve, survive and thrive.
About the Author:
William Poole-Wilson RIBA – Director of Will+Partners. Will+Partners combine architecture, interiors and design in the workplace, helping organisations to understand and unlock the potential of their working environment. Will has a particular interest in sustainability, how new technologies influence work strategies, and smart premise design. With over 25 years’ experience in workplace design and strategy, research work and publications include:
- Pioneer and founder of RICS SKA sustainable rating tool 2008
- Lead author BCO Wellness Matters 2018, E Garrod, J Pack, W Poole-Wilson, Robinson
- Office Design and its impacts on Business Efficiencies a research document prepared by CABE in Partnership with Mindi Hadi (BRE), Andrew Clifford and Prof. Bevin Nutt (UCL) 2003.
- Case study projects and policy recommendations for energy carbon trading for DTI/DEFRA/OPDM 2002
- RIBA sustainable communities Research for OPDM and Sir John Egan Clifford, Evers, Keenan, Poole-Wilson 2003
- Reviewer for BCO fit out guide between 2004 - 2021
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