When we go back to the office, what will it look like? In an age when our dining and living rooms have been transformed into conference rooms and focus spaces, the topic of the post-COVID office experience is ripe for speculation. Some of the changes discussed are an acceleration of trends already on the rise, others will require fundamental shifts in the way we perceive and design the workplace.
As we look to the future of work and the workplace, we also have some predictions about how work will look and feel, what the distinction between "office" and "workplace really means, and how we will balance work and life responsibilities in the new employment landscape.
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1. A renewed commitment to work-life balance
The immediate effect of COVID-19 was to bring all our top priorities (literally) under one roof. The humble kitchen table, scene of innumerable dinners and homework sessions, expanded its resume to become our home office and classroom. Four months into a home-based summer, we’re continuing to learn to balance commitments and responsibilities at home, staying productive while attending to pets, kids, outside distractions, and the occasional technology hiccup.
Out of this revolutionary shift has evolved a new awareness of flexibility by our managers and office policy-makers. Managers, some thrust into remote work for the first time themselves, are learning radical empathy for teams in the same position. Remote work trends that were only beginning to pick up speed suddenly became a vital part of survival for businesses. And our teams and managers rose to the occasion. As the pandemic wanes, our perceptions of remote work and work-life balance are unlikely to shift back.
One of the few silver linings of stay-at-home orders, therefore, will be a fundamental change in how we engage in flexible workplace strategies. We’ve proved it can be done, and our workforce will expect it going forward.
2. Changing approaches to the built environment
For all the flexibility remote work offers, it’s not feasible (or even desirable) for the traditional office to disappear completely. Sure, there are real estate savings to be realized in a remote-first culture, but there are aspects of work that are hampered by the virtual space. Face-to-face collaboration is important for growth-minded companies; that real-time, energetic exchange of ideas is hard to replicate over Slack or Zoom.
In light of this, facilities and workplace experience leaders looking toward a re-opening of the workplace are now challenged to reimagine the way our physical spaces serve us, how they protect us, and how we engage with them.
For established offices looking to reopen in the near term, the task at hand is to make the workplace as safe as possible, as quickly as possible. This will include initiatives like changes to the physical workplace: improving air handling and air quality in common spaces, reducing the flexibility and density of our seating and gathering spaces, enhancements to the technology used in meeting and conference spaces, and improvements in the way we navigate the space and track occupancy.
Reimagined new office design and use
The broader industry of commercial design will change as well. Designers and architects are already conceptualizing the ways in which offices must adapt to facilitate safe and healthy use. These changes will revolutionize the way we think about personal and common office areas, airflow, density planning, and air handling. They will likely change the way we navigate office spaces, potentially based on role (employee, vendor, or visitor) and how we use the spaces while we’re there.
New spaces will also consider how employees participate in their own healthcare within the office, for instance, with BYOB peripherals such as keyboards and pens, or through the introduction of in-office clinics. The potential increasing shift away from mass transit—a potential vector for infection— will create a need for better personal transport storage.
3. A human-centric approach to office life
Of the big takeaways in our hiatus from office life, the biggest is probably that remote work has clarified our reasons for being there. Though often caricatured and maligned in pop culture, the office offers something far greater than just a place to sit down and work. The pandemic has highlighted our need for varied human connection and a change of scenery to truly be productive. The office provides a place where we can step into our own, learn from others, be recognized for our achievements, and enjoy a larger social circle on neutral turf.
To make the return to office life successful, it needs to be a place people opt in to. "Office" and "workplace" are no longer as the office is just one of the settings in your possible workplace arsenal. The trial run of remote work proved that teams can be productive and thrive through technology. Now, the office can become a place where people come to be inspired, rather than managed.
The future is now
The future of work has already arrived; the pandemic has spurred an evolutionary leap in our means and method of work. The global workforce now finds itself quite suddenly arrived at the destination we assumed would take years— embracing technology and empathy in order to create a more flexible, healthy work-life. With the focus now fully on making the office (and the virtual office) the best they can be, the safest prediction we can make is that the resilient office and its inhabitants will thrive.
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