As offices continue to evolve, flexibility and adaptability will be key with modular furniture, “hoteling” desks that employees book when they need them instead of having dedicated spaces, and businesses exploring coworking and flexible office spaces.
“I think there’s a general trend that started way before COVID,” says Hannes Kovac, president and CEO of Opus, a full-service commercial real estate company. “Flexible work arrangements such as working from home have been around since before COVID-19, but it accelerated this trend, and ‘forced’ employers and employees to work remotely sooner.”
Robyn Baxter, senior vice president and co-managing director, workplace advisory, with Colliers International, says remote work in particular has moved forward dramatically. “Employees, managers and executives who previously thought, ‘no, we cannot have our people work from home,’ have overnight figured out that, in fact, people can work from home,” she says.
In an interview in December 2020, Baxter said that some Colliers tenants were looking at making a reintegration into the office by mid-2021. For some, it will largely be back to business as usual. But she expects changes both big and small from how things were, noting that different industries and companies will adapt differently.
Baxter says when safety measures are made front of mind for workers they can be more effective. For example, cleaning stations placed throughout offices, well-communicated (and enforced) mask policies, encouragement to make sure desks are ready for cleaners at the end of the day and air purifiers all provide safety that comes with a physical reminder that the employer cares about staff health.
Many workplaces are using a hybrid attendance model allowing for both in-office and remote work instead of an all-or-nothing approach. This means adjusting again to new work patterns. “That is not to be not to be taken lightly in terms of figuring out how you’re going to do that and how it’s going to work,” says Baxter.
That shift affects how employees work together as well as the orientation of office space. Baxter believes some employees could share desks and others may have no dedicated workspace whatsoever. This could result in “reconfiguration and reallocation,” where spaces within an office that used to serve one function may be repurposed for others. It’s possible that workers who come in once a week or less might entirely rely on hoteling and not have a dedicated desk of their own.
Jerilyn Wright, principal of Jerilyn Wright & Associates, has been working on future-looking interior design strategies with her commercial clients throughout the pandemic. She believes the built environment is “the best kept secret” when it comes to impacting health and work performance, and that the next chapter of office work revolves around strategies for changing spaces to improve workers’ mental states.
Wright focuses on modular and flexible design solutions that can be tweaked to quickly respond to changes as needed. Her company has been developing products since COVID-19 began. One example is the “Perch.” Essentially a bar that attaches to the wall for workers to lean against, the Perch provides more distance between each person at a meeting than conference table seating. It’s just one of the ways she is looking at how a space can be both socially distant and inviting.
Recognizing that COVID-19 made many of us feel powerless, Wright expects the desire for personal control to play a big role in improving employees’ productivity. She suggests giving employees more individual control over their space, such as lighting and air conditions or desk orientation, to calm nerves and boost productivity.
In addition to changing furnishings and how we use office space, many are predicting changes to how much office space we will need. “There are lots of companies that are reevaluating their real estate requirements,” says Alex Putici, founder and member of Work Nicer Coworking, which closed one of its former spaces and acquired The Commons last year. While coworking used to be thought of primarily for startups and freelance workers, Putici believes many businesses are considering either leaving or reducing their existing office space and instead moving toward a blended remote work model using a combination of corporate offices, home offices and co-working spaces.
Baxter and Wright both have a warning for companies looking at restructuring their offices: don’t jump the gun. “Don’t make too many long-term decisions based on being in the middle of an imperfect experiment,” says Baxter. Understandably, a lot of companies are looking for a permanent resolution to their current problems. But these experts’ principles of “reconfiguration and reallocation,” and “flexibility and modularity” are ways to work toward long-term success. There’s no perfect workplace of tomorrow, just ways to address change as it comes. Hard as that is, it’s a smart way to move into the future.