COVID-19 and the workplace of the future

workplace of the future
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Here, PLACEmaking looks ahead to how the changes made to our ways of working during the COVID-19 crisis could decide the workplace of the future

The past 12 months have shown that the working world can adapt to crisis, and that solutions such as remote working can be adopted with little warning. But those reactive changes made in the face of the COVID-19 crisis could define the way we work in the future. Organisations big and small will be faced with questions over what lessons they choose to take forward after the crisis and the changes they choose to make in the coming months.

COVID-19 has proven that organisations cannot hope to simply apply ‘sticking plaster’ solutions onto old, out of date offices and expect them to meet new expectations for the workplace. Changes need to be more than mere cosmetic alterations to the status quo. Some of the benefits that emerged from the crisis will have long-term positive implications not just influencing the physical design of the workplace but could also alter how they operate. In the coming post-COVID period, some of the downsides to office-based working that were considered entrenched and inescapable may finally be confined to history. Long, costly commutes and the culture of unnecessary meetings and presenteeism may prove to be casualties of the new, forward-thinking way that organisations want to work. The agile working solutions brought about in the face of pandemic emergency could (and in many cases should) be replaced by new policies and practices much more suitable to the way we want to work in the future. In the wrong hands interpreting increased flexibility to dictating fixed days that employees must attend to the workplace is really missing the point. Enforced home working has demonstrated that people can work productively without managed presenteeism and constant supervision so a greater emphasis on staff choosing to balance time in and out of the office is called for (be it HQ or decentralised hub).

Different skillsets may become the new focus

Severing our ties to the traditional office and independence from the command and control of office management may result in us taking more responsibility for our own career development rather than being reliant on the opportunities (or lack thereof) that our current employer offers us. High-quality online skills development platforms and workshops which can be accessed by anyone, mean that we can take responsibility and agency over our own personal ‘toolset’ without being restricted by the prescriptive ‘training’ offered by the organisations that we currently work.

Alongside this, we could see a shift in the skillset potential employers will look for when it comes to hiring. There will, of course, always be certain industries and roles where focussed specialisation will take priority but we could also begin to see core skills such as adaptability, ability to switching to more agile working solutions and ability to pick up new skills becoming in increasing demand. As we’ve examined in a previous article the traditional workplace was already proving inadequate and out of sync with the needs of those entering the workforce, the COVID-19 crisis has in many ways highlighted these issues and made it clear that a different, more flexible way of working is not only possible, but also in many cases essential to organisational sustainability and operational survival.

Organisations will still need to fulfil their responsibilities to the people that work for themHow COVID-19 could change the way we look at offices and workspaces

For their part, organisations will need to remain focussed on their responsibilities to the talent they wish to attract and retain. People may start taking on personal responsibility for their career development but that does not mean that organisations do not have a responsibility to offer mentorship and well-being support, particularly for those new to the world of work or for those who are taking on new and unfamiliar job roles and responsibilities. As we traverse the post-pandemic working world, organisations choosing to rationalise their former office estate, need to take care to understand the sometimes abstract benefits of the informal and more social interactions in and around the ‘office’ and ensure these issues are not dismissed. The culture that defines an organisation is built by the people that work for it, and this cannot be expected to develop over Zoom or Teams. The financial argument for reducing the office estate and adopting remote working is a strong one (brought to the forefront by empty offices during lockdowns) but it cannot be the sole motivating factor in an organisation’s decision for adopting different work styles and changing work patterns going forward.

Rather than simply being the same old offices but possibly smaller, the new office will need to be rethought of as a place that facilitates formal and informal mentoring and hosting opportunities for collaboration with wide networks of skills and experiences. For their part organisations will also need to make sure that their managers and supervisors balance their team’s career development opportunities with equal career opportunities and benefits and rewards regardless of whether they are working remotely or in-office. We may no longer need the old office but we do need places that will host and facilitate important in-person interaction and, in direct response to the COVID-19 crisis organisations should begin to redesign the new office and consider it as a form of investment not only in real estate terms but as a place that hosts events for the people that form the core of any successful organisation and the culture that they create, nurture and sustain.

So how do we design the ‘new office’?

The workplace we return to should not be a simply dusted down version of the pre-COVID 19 office we left last year. However frequently visited, the new office now has to change and the office of old is no longer fit for purpose. Organisations need to rethink the scale and distribution of their operational base, balancing the need for a city centre presence with locality-based drop-in work hubs that support now established home working patterns. However large or small their office estate is, its primary purpose is to invest in their collective culture, the well-being of their talent and positive connection with their customer base. Whether accessed physically or virtually or a combination of the two, the focus of the ‘new office’ must be on welcome and comfort, operated by customer-focused services and supported and enabled by intuitive, user-friendly technologies.

In place of bland, military-style harsh furniture layouts, people will want greater choice and the ability to create a space that works for them and they want a change of style, replacing glass, steel and concrete and in with smaller-scale offices and workplaces that are designed with character in place of corporate anonymity.

This moment in time is an opportunity to repurpose the new office, building on the unique experience of the last 12 months and embracing the opportunity to encourage a greater sense of collaboration with the people we work with. We need to create a new infrastructure of places, spaces, services and technologies that are focused from the point of view of the individuals and their needs.

PLACEmaking are workplace designers and change advisors.


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