When business leaders pivoted their companies from floors of office workers into makeshift mobility platforms at the beginning of this pandemic shutdown, they did not realize that they were effectively about to change the future of the office.
As we have settled into a routine of working in isolation, business leaders are contemplating when and how they will bring their workforce back to the office and navigating solutions to alleviate the justified fear and apprehension of their workers.
There has been much discussion around our newfound ability to work remotely, and although it isn’t for everyone, there is a realization that many people have adapted quickly, recaptured hours of travel time and recognize the benefits that working from home provides. As companies are looking to create onboarding strategies, they can now consider mobile work as a valid solution to establishing lighter population densities within the office. Workers who were once tied to their desks may now have the ability and permission to expand and vary their work location preference and to work in an elastic state. Many firms are considering that ripple effect on space and are trying to understand if less people in the office will automatically translate to a requirement of less square footage.
As we examine the ‘why’ behind bringing people back to the office, the consensus is that we miss being together. We innovate, collaborate and connect better when we meet in person. We also miss the social side of work; sharing our weekend highlights over a coffee or just having someone close by who will laugh at a funny meme posted on the company intranet. While this isolation time has proven that we can all manage our heads-down work from whichever quiet space we can find in our homes, it has also shown us that we are missing out on the subtle information that tacitly passes through our offices every day. Most days, we overhear or see activity that contributes to our own efficacy at work. Being able to listen to the challenges your teammates are working through may allow you to skip a step when you encounter that problem next week. Having visual access to a collaboration area that is being used to share new strategies might provide you with insight to better align your departmental goals.
What we know is that when we come back to the office, we will do it to be with each other and that our community and collaboration spaces will be more important than ever. This freestyle meeting space will require re-thinking to accommodate responsible distancing, manage traffic patterns and adopt new cleaning protocols. We will be awkward and hesitant to participate in meetings in smaller enclosed spaces and we will gravitate to open areas with better, safer ventilation and more choice in where we sit. To make sure we don’t lose the conversation between people and departments, these spaces will require technology to integrate staff working offsite, enabling mobile workers to freely join meetings throughout the office easily and effectively.
Although the immediate knee-jerk reaction will be to build walls, put up high partitions and separate everyone, science and healthcare design have proven that partitioning can create a false sense of security, reduce vital air ventilation and is not a viable broad-spectrum solution. The realistic option will be to develop robust wellness protocols and maintain safe, well-spaced individual work zones.
For open area offices, this means using intuitive traffic pathing and the implementation of practical furniture solutions through strategic shielding and planning that respects effective distancing. For meeting spaces, the goal will be to enhance and encourage collaboration through the creation of intentionally designed open gathering spaces that invite participants through the use of adequate space assignments, intentional furniture and material specifications and robust technology.
Don’t downsize your square footage just yet. The office that you move back into may have a smaller population but will likely need some bigger thinking to give you the breathing room and functionality that you will require tomorrow. Let’s not lose the progress we have made in office design this past decade. Our workplaces should continue to encourage autonomy in work through the freedom to choose a space within the office footprint that is safe, comfortable, and just right for each of us.