Date 11/10/2021

Author Carl

It’s too early to say how lasting might be the impact on offices and office culture of post pandemic attitudes to flexible or hybrid workplaces but advances in technology and design add pace to a growing trend driven in part by employees’ recent experience.

In and out of office—how might attitudes to flexibility influence future workspaces?

The death of the office has of course been predicted before, but the current pandemic proved a decisive test for many firms when lockdowns forced the issue. The work from home (WFH) directives issued at the beginning of 2020’s lockdown made homeworkers of all those who could, but did so bluntly, without time to plan its effectiveness or consider the effects on workers’ welfare beyond containing the COVID-19 virus. The subsequent ‘discovery’ that remote work is not only practical but for many people desirable—at least part of the time—has set commentators once again declaring that change is here to stay.

The idea of offices adapting to changing ideas about work is not new. From rabbit warren buildings to open plan, from cubicles to hot desks, the pendulum of office design has swung this way and that over the years, but what is different is the impetus that lockdowns have imparted to the current change. Instead of being driven by management fads, this is a case of companies having to adapt rapidly to force majeure.

Since the first lockdowns, the gathering momentum for flexibility is from employees who quite like their newfound freedom from the ties of the desk. In recent surveys for the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research (2020) and YouGov (2021), employees overwhelmingly indicated their desire to continue working from home in some capacity (88%) and had an expectation that employers would support their views (70%).

Anecdotally, in recruitment we see people are reflecting on what they want from work and rejecting opportunities if they do not offer a degree of remote working, preferring to wait for an opening at a firm with a more willing attitude to flexibility.

Set against this opinion, one defence of spending some time in the office must be company culture. Lockdown in 2020 was sudden and had significant consequences including a poor sense of community and declining company culture – many employees were simply not ready for it. Where remote meeting apps functioned well as purely transactional aids to business, they signally failed in the more nuanced area of relationship building. You can’t sustain a culture over Zoom.

Designing for a hybrid world of work

As companies seek to address changing attitudes, balance seems to be the key word. A hybrid office/WFH arrangement is thought, by designers and technology companies, to be the likely outcome. But what changes might we begin to see as people return to offices?

Collaboration and teamwork are of the essence in office environments (or at least, they should be) and employees and businesses frequently say that quality, face-to-face time is needed. It is a paradox that many of us crave the seclusion of home for productivity, yet we cannot thrive without the countless unplanned interactions of an average office day. The office needs to change to accommodate this demand blending technologies with environments to enable creativity, collaboration, and culture to thrive.

Office layouts may change to emphasise informal meeting spaces (already a trend before lockdowns), reducing desk numbers and increasing sofas. The idea of using limited office time productively—for collaboration, inspiration, and teamwork—seems a better use of public space. The lack of formality of public spaces offers an appealingly less rigid feeling that is conducive to idea generation and creative flow.

Huckletree, a provider of serviced office/virtual office properties, offers community-based access to creative spaces in the UK and Ireland. In building collaborative interiors, they have taken such ideas to extremes, commissioning meditation yurts, VR studios to test products, and ‘Dreamscape’ rooms.

Architect studio Woods Bagot has designed four post COVID-19 workplace models to aid collaboration and team building in the office. Culture Club, In and Out, Community Nodes and Collectives are designed with the idea that a percentage of employees will always work from home. Each has different arrangements of desks, chairs, and sofas. The studio believes that to bring people back to the workplace, an approach to office design is required that goes beyond ensuring worker safety, to strengthen culture and performance.

Hybrid workers a solution to shortages?

An acute shortage of highly qualified professionals following Brexit and COVID-19 has left many firms struggling to fill vacancies. For design firms whose reliance on migrant workers has been hit by both events, filling positions with mainly digital outputs, like concept or early technical drawings, are ripe for designers working remotely.

A wider pool of potential talent might also broaden opportunities for projects. Not only might it expand the number of projects available for a firm to pursue, but it may also change the type of projects and the profile of clients they’d like.

Technology is solving distance issues

Technology is helping to support the hybrid workplace not least by making places COVID safe, through basics like contactless access to offices and thermal imaging. As employees work at the office on a more ad-hoc basis, they may find office-navigation technologies, showing how many rooms or desks have been booked or occupied as well as software to help colleagues find each other in larger buildings.

During the lockdown we learnt to tolerate the jittering, delayed conversations of meeting apps, although they are far from the ideal. But here too, technology is catching up. Among musicians, and music teachers, a slight delay doesn’t work at all. Instead of the latency of around a second to 1.5 seconds you’re used to in Zoom, the performance targeted by music collaboration technology companies is below 30ms, and ideally around 10-15ms, at which point the delay is largely imperceptible to the human ear. It’s about the same delay you might experience if you have a conversation with someone four or five metres away. When that technology is available to office workers, meetings will be more dynamic, and all participants will feel more like they are in the room.

These are uncertain but also exciting and times of rapid change for the workplace. We can work much more easily and include people from anywhere in the world; and we can use the opportunity to create refreshing and productive experiences for everyone in the physical office. It could be the key to the productivity gains national economies need.

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