A new design for the new world of work

Widespread forecasts at the height of the pandemic about the death of the office have largely failed to come to pass, but its role is definitely changing as part of a wider, but as yet still mainly experimental, shift to hybrid working

A key challenge that many organisations face in this time of transition is an apparently growing disconnect between what leaders and their employees want in terms of what a return to the office should look like going forward. For instance, a report by Slack Technologies’ Future Forum, entitled The great executive-employee disconnect, revealed that leaders are nearly three times more likely than their staff to want everyone back full-time.

Although productivity was the initial reason cited for taking this stance, the argument has now shifted to the potential damage that remote and hybrid working are doing to workplace culture. The belief is that high performance is easier to achieve when everyone is located in the same place, making it easier to collaborate and cross-fertilise ideas.

But a key challenge, according to a study by property services firm Cushman & Wakefield, called Office of the future revisited, is that one-fifth of workers express a clear preference to come into the office only occasionally, while a further 20% would favour never having to do so at all.

Therefore, at a time when skills and labour shortages are widespread across the UK economy and attrition rates are at record highs, the danger is that staff simply vote with their feet should the work-life balance they desire not be available to them.

The upshot of this situation, says Stefanie Sebald, head of design at Kitt, which offers bespoke managed offices, is that many medium to large employers are currently “treading lightly” and, rather than trying to bend staff to their will, are “designing spaces to entice people back into the office”.

She explains: “So, rather than just having a sea of really functional desks and workstations, it’s about ‘how do we make a space that people want to come to?’. It’s almost about blending the comforts of home in an office space, so many companies are now introducing things like wellness rooms, which in the past would have been considered too expensive because you pay for space by the square foot.”

Improving the workplace experience

This goal of improving the workplace experience is also leading organisations to focus more on “quality”, which includes having sites in easy-to-reach, central locations with lots of amenities nearby and beautiful views. It also means that a good number of employers are designing their internal spaces with “much more intentionally”, says Sebald.

In fact, a survey by Leesman, a consultancy that analyses and measures the workplace experience, showed that 39% of real estate leaders were planning to make major changes to the physical layout of their office to support employee needs better. A further 54% intended to make minor adjustments, and only 6% aimed to keep everything the same.

“Those aiming to make major change are rethinking the purpose of the office going forward, so they are evaluating what employees will go there for, what the environment needs to support and what it means for their real estate footprint – and they’re making changes based on that,” says Peggie Rothe, chief insight and research officer at Leesman.

A key aim for most is to ensure the office reflects and supports their organisational objectives in terms of culture and ways of working. As a result, many large companies, in particular, are starting to create activity-based workplace environments, where various individual areas or zones are set up to host specific activities.

These include meeting and huddle rooms – dedicated private spaces for focused work, which include small clusters of desks and phone booths for making calls – and a range of informal breakout areas for collaborating and socialising with individuals or small groups.

“Collaborating is much more important and intentional for corporates than it used to be,” says Sebald. “The previous default was to meet in the kitchen or at the coffee machine and cross-pollinate ideas, whereas now there is a trend towards actually creating collaboration space, and lots of different types.”

Another key consideration for many organisations, and one that is only expected to grow, is wellbeing. For instance, says Natalie Engels, global work sector leader at design and architecture firm Gensler: “The biggest, universal change to office layout and design is that it should feel lighter, and greater importance is being placed on fresh air. Post-pandemic buildings also provide the ability to access outdoors easily.”

Read more about the new normal of work

As to how technology requirements are changing to support these shifts as well as facilitate the creation of a positive workplace experience regardless of where employees are based, Engels adds: “This may be the biggest challenge yet.”

For instance, in a “hybrid everything” world, adequate levels of bandwidth are imperative at every location, whether office or home, she says. All meeting rooms require seamless, intuitive tech, which includes good-quality audio-visual equipment and whiteboards, to cater to the needs of workers, whether on site or remote.

Software is also required to help employees navigate the new office environment more easily. This includes workplace experience applications for booking desks or meeting rooms, as well as informing you whether or not colleagues and team members are on site.

The advantage of such applications, when combined with space analytics tools and sensors, is that they can also help employers understand how the workforce is using the office space for planning purposes. In fact, Brian Chen, co-founder and chief executive of modular architecture provider ROOM, expects such technology to “play an outsized role in helping companies navigate the post-pandemic office”.

He says: “Every workforce will be different, and every company will need to decide on a real estate and office strategy that is tailored to the needs of their specific teams. But there is no better way to make data-driven decisions than to measure and analyse actual behaviours, and that’s where sensor data and space analytics come into play.”

Not only does such information enable organisations to tweak their current office layouts to suit their changing needs today, but they can also use it to inform future decisions, should they decide to move.

Everyone working together more closely

But for this kind of optimised hybrid office environment to come into being, technology leaders will need to work significantly more closely with colleagues than may have been the case in the past.

As Cushman & Wakefield’s report explains: “It’s a business challenge that requires an integrated approach from real estate, human resources, finance and technology leadership. They need to work cooperatively as the organisation defines brand, builds culture, develops and refines policies and creates reputational capital.”

Leesman’s Rothe agrees, adding: “Not one of them can take a decision without it impacting on the others. We’ve been saying for years that managing the entire work environment should be a job for everyone working together, so this is a big opportunity.”

But she also points out that it is not enough to simply push through change from the top without understanding, and taking into account, what employees expect, need or want. This is where strategies such as employee listening, feedback and the judicious use of data have a valuable role to play to gain insights into the wider workplace experience. Change management is another important consideration – and is likely to be for some time to come.

Over the next couple of years, for example, Engels anticipates growing use of algorithms and artificial intelligence software to understand the connections between “human behaviour and space and experience”, with the aim of optimising them. The idea here is that buildings, offices and meeting spaces become smarter and “work for us”, she says.

“So the idea is that your badge would know that you work for Gensler and your calendar would know that you need a meeting room,” she adds. “It would know your preferences and where your team is and would go ahead and reserve the spaces you need, to provide you with a seamless, augmented experience.”

Case study: Cognism

To encourage its sales staff to return to the office, Cognism has moved its London site to a prime location next to Borough Market and ensured that the interior is not just attractive but also supports a variety of working styles.

Kristapor Giragosian, the sales intelligence provider’s chief operating officer, says: “Rather than have a sub-par office and say ‘you have to come in this many days a week’, we’ve chosen to build an office that people will want to come to. It’s about supporting their growth, as otherwise they’d be missing opportunities to learn, but it also enables the free flow of ideas, which helps productivity.”

The amount of time when sales personnel are able to work remotely has been capped at five days a month. New joiners and juniors with between one and two years’ experience, on the other hand, are expected to come in four days a week to learn the ropes and gain an understanding of the company culture.

Other employees can come and go at their own discretion, although senior executives are expected to be present at least once a quarter to set objectives and key results, establish schedules and meet and socialise with their teams. While the firm’s total workforce is about 120 people, the office itself accommodates 70.

But because the sales floor tends to be “super-high energy, with people clapping and applauding”, the decision was taken to create different areas for quiet activities using modular furniture. To this end, Cognism hired ROOM to build out its space with 10 office phone booths and two private meeting pods adjacent to the usual desks and workstations.   

Giragosian adds: “In the past, people were used to a lot of background noise, but after working from home, they don’t want to be disturbed and have got used to having the space for taking calls.”

The idea here is to accommodate a range of working styles and approaches or “risk losing out on talent”. As Giragonsian says: “It’s about building the best office environment possible to ensure we have an effective training ground and also create a positive sense of community.”

Read more on Collaboration software and productivity software

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