“We have to start with why we are coming to the office. Working from home and virtual meetings have limitations. We’re creative and social people and the workplace helps us connect, collaborate, and be creative. At the same time, companies need people to come together to shape culture — the way things get done. Without that, organizations will lose their competitive advantage over time,” says James Ludwig, VP of Global Design & Engineering for Steelcase. “Of course, front and center is the health and safety of our people. But as we think beyond the now and the near, we’ll be able to move past virus-centric solutions to human-centric solutions.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing measures applied around the world have challenged the very concept of the workplace. Many organizations have attempted to shift to a 100% remote workforce in order to maintain operations through this open-ended crisis. Social distancing has boosted remote work trends, so with profits down and recession looming, many companies are rethinking their need for a physical workplace at all. The last six months have been a period of mass reflection in so many ways but for the office, it appears to be a fundamentally existential crisis.
So, what is the true meaning of a physical office in this socially distanced and digitally connected age?
“I like to think about it in four “P’s” — purpose, potential, perspective, and possibility. All organizations that are high performing don’t just talk about purpose, they embed it into their office every day. One thing I think is really important as we consider why we go back to the office is the notion of tapping into our humanity in a technology-driven world,” says Todd Heiser, Co-managing Director at Gensler.
“I love to say physical spaces act like real-life social networks. I believe that notion of purpose, potential, perspective, and possibility will be why we go back to the office and we’ll use the workplace as a tool, just like we use our iPhone, video conferencing, or a coworking space. All of these are tools in our veritable work toolbox.”
The physical workplace as a tool, alongside tech-enabled remote work and co-working, sounds like an acceleration of the flexible working trends we had been seeing before COVID. Flexible working provides employees with the choice to work from wherever suits them best on any given day and promises employers cost-saving through downsizing their physical office.
Flexible working gives the best of both worlds, physical and remote, through a mix of physical hotdesking and virtual collaboration tools. Many would welcome an acceleration of this pre-COVID trend, but it doesn’t solve the problems of our current virus-centric environment.
“I’m talking to my clients about not lingering on this current phase, but really thinking about the future. Everything in the next 12-18 months (pre-vaccine) is going to get us to a new place. We’re going to see a series of spaces in the office to support health and wellbeing, and there is a need to merge physical and virtual worlds to retain the part of the office that brings us together for a shared purpose,” continues Heiser.
“We’re focused on defining the future and creating a workplace that’s truly more resilient. We know while this was an exceptional time, all of these experiences allow us to be better prepared to create spaces that are more resilient and support the whole human. With that in mind, I’m excited for what the future brings and that’s why the world needs design.”
While the development of an effective vaccine is only the start of the vaccination process, the world will eventually be vaccinated, starting with residents of the most developed economies. And as each region gains immunity, we will return to “normal” but the magnitude of the crisis we have been through, and the impact of mass reflection across business, politics, and society, will take us into a new post-COVID era. This period of our future history will be defined by improvements to healthcare and public health awareness, but also as a period of increased trust in the technology that stepped up during the crisis to keep things running.
Crises create opportunities and for the workplace, this extended period, where remote work tools have stepped up, creates an opportunity to re-design for a new tech-rich post-COVID era.
“I’ve been a designer for 35 years. There’s only been three times in my career that I’ve truly been given an opportunity to rethink everything. And, this is one of them,” says Kay Sargent, Senior Principal Director of WorkPlace at HOK. “This is a huge opportunity. This may be what shifts the focus from square feet per person to human-centered measurements. This may be what makes us embrace autonomous workplaces, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, and robotics, so we can create better, more intuitive, hands-free places. Right now, our cars are more sophisticated than our offices. This is a chance for the workplace to catch up and advance if we do it right.”
Now is not the time to rush back to the office, and the future is not the time to get back to the past. The physical workplace is in limbo as the virtual workplace takes center stage, but the future workplace is a potentially enriching mix of all these tools and environments.
The future workplace has the flexibility to handle a lockdown or host a physical event, it gives freedom to both employee and employer, offering the ultimate form of human-centricity. Now is the time for physical offices to reflect and reconsider, to push through the hype, invest boldly, and to re-design for a new post-COVID world.