As we slowly step out into the world, still mindful of Coronavirus, we need to consider that for the next 12-18 months (or much longer) our concept of daily commuting to an office, sitting at a desk, attending meetings in boardrooms and commuting back home has changed and may never return to how it was previously. While the natural reaction of most companies is to call their employees back to work, employers should be asking asking important questions: Why? Is it really safe? Are we bringing workers to the office because we want to see the employees together? Is it because we yearn for normal? Do we need to portray confidence? Or are we bringing them back because we have the physical space? None of these reasons would be wrong. It is critical to capture the business needs; however, self-reflection may open some new opportunities.
There are great case studies on why some companies can shift the approach and location that work is done. In some cases, employees don’t need to return to the onsite environment, and it leads to real benefits for the company.
How We Got Here
The office environment has evolved, especially in the most recent decades.
• Like the factories they were attached to, most early modern offices were built on Taylorism, which approached the work through science and engineering. This design captured efficiencies but lacked warmth and understanding of human interactions. • Along with tall steel structured buildings came the ability to heat, cool and light larger spaces. This created a flexible floorplan that lead to a mix of offices and open workspaces. • Starting in the late 1960s, the concepts of human interaction and collaboration began to appear in office spaces in Europe. • In the 1980s, modular partitions appeared around desks as the cubicle concept appeared as a cheap way of dividing space. While these physical barriers closed off human contact, it also opened up the ability for workers to personalize their workspace. • For a few decades the cubicle kept workers isolated, but this changed with the invention of mobile access, laptops and remote access to secure networks. This allowed workers to move about the office and even work in hotels and their home. • Once the workforce no longer needed a desk, many companies (especially in the high-tech fields) were able to design more friendly work environments. Outside designers were brought in to unlock creativity, comfort and even fun. Free, chef-prepared restaurants became normal and brought an abundance of quality choices for their busy, creative workforce. • In the last decade, many high-tech companies leveraged these changes and designed a culture that reflected these diverse workspaces. These same companies are now asking their highly skilled workers to not utilize their expensive office space and instead, work remotely for social distancing. This has potential to change the culture and challenge norms.
While the most recent evolved space allowed increases in collaboration and teamwork, the Coronavirus and social distancing practices suddenly challenged these benefits and likely will disrupt most work environments for the foreseeable future.
What is Next: A Situation That Needs to Change
Providing safety and an environment for human performance is core to future designs. However, beyond a short-term fix, adding plexiglass shields and cubicle dividers are not long-term answers. We need to rethink what is important about work and what it means to be a worker. Effective work has to be more than adding barriers. It needs to be about increasing innovation and creativity. This is how value is created.
• We are likely going to see an increase of available commercial space due to companies that downsized and others that shifted to remote work. While this change won’t all happen immediately, it will negatively impact the economic commercial real estate market. This will also provide opportunities for creatively using this available workspace at likely lower prices. • Instead of business designing their own workspace, collaborate in a joint venture between your business partners to collocate office space and collaboration areas. Your employees can now work together with upstream and downstream partners within a safe and productive environment. • Use indoor plants as physical barriers between workstations instead of walls. Not only do plants add a barrier but they also support cleaner air and a more-relaxing environment. Natural sunlight and vegetation also reduce worker stress. • Open spaces are still important in tomorrow’s office, but we need to rethink where and how this workspace is utilized. Businesses previously leased commercial space which forced workers to travel to the office. Now, offices can be moved to be in closer proximity to residential areas. Instead of commuters going to work, it comes to them. With the abundance of technology available, many offices have flexibility to be anywhere.
Building in a Flex Work strategy is the future of work. It captures the flexibility of where, when and how work gets done. It also reduces the carbon footprint, saves the company money, reduces churn and improves worker performance.
At Propulo Consulting, we partner with you to improve the world of work. Our team has the expertise to help your business plan and implement a sensible Flex Work strategy without pain. We work with you to ensure your company culture and processes develop accordingly during or after a Flex Work transition so you can continue to deliver results for your organization and customers. Please contact us for the latest insights