We are all anxious to hit the reset button and return to our previously scheduled lives, but it’s important to reflect on what the last twelve months have taught us. Over the past year, we have found new ways to work, managed our time, and integrated working from home into our new normal. And while many workers have probably enjoyed working from home and spending time with their loved ones, a good portion of them miss going to the office and interacting with colleagues. Remote work is here to stay, but so is the office.
Now organizations must rethink their offices as a destination of choice and a place that is fundamentally unique from the experience of working remotely. To do it, the workplace must
embrace a new purpose of community, culture, and collaboration while creating an atmosphere where employees spend less time focusing on individual tasks and more time working together with their peers.
I recently sat down with a panel of industry experts at Bisnow’s Seattle Architecture and Design Summit to discuss the role of the office in a post-Covid-19 world and how data and research is informing what the future of work looks like. Here is what they had to say.
How strategists are navigating the unknown
Jacob Simons, Studio Director | Senior Associate at Gensler
When our daily normal was shattered in 2020, so too were our expectations for tomorrow. In their wake, we were left with more questions than answers. And because we now face a future without a precedent, we are captivated by the many, mighty possibilities before us.
From a strategy perspective, not knowing is liberating. It has led to a vast imagination instead of the traditional leap to scoping solutions. For example, we have long been building campuses that elevate innovation, creativity, and wellbeing. Now, we’re asking, “Under what conditions does innovation truly thrive?” or “How can we humanize work?” Or “how can we demonstrate ‘care’ to our employees in our return to the office strategy? These questions are reshaping what is possible.
As we look ahead at the future of work, we will be drawn back to urban centers, public spaces, and offices. But not because it’s how things were before, or because it’s required. Rather because we yearn for community and togetherness. This radical disruption has taught us so much. We now have the opportunity to keep all we have gained and reconnect to that which we have lost.
Today, we are still mostly projecting rather than predicting, but with imagination, data, and the right questions, we’re beginning to see a remarkable future.
How data and culture are coming together to create a new future.
Kelly Griffin, Principal at NBBJ
No one on earth has experienced a return to work following a global pandemic. This is unfamiliar territory that we’re all experiencing together, and it’s changing how we use data and research.
Traditionally, data has helped us respond to metric-driven problems: efficiency, occupation, and utilizations. We have not spent much time using it to home in on people and organizational problems. Right now, that is all changing.
First, we are looking at organizational data, starting with each company’s leaders. We are asking them what they have learned about their organization and culture over the past year. Then we meet with the people doing the work every day to better understand who wants to come back to work and why. Finally, we talk to individual teams. The sweet spot is combining those conversations with data sets to inform what the future will look like for each individual organization.
Throughout our research, culture has surfaced as the most important reason people want to return to the office. If companies want to rethink the workplace, understanding their culture and aligning a future with that culture has been the best predictor of what companies will eventually do.
Additionally, companies are wrestling with two opposing forces. On one hand, they are realizing that working from home can be a powerful tool to give employees more choice and flexibility. On the other hand, they’ve learned that –– as a whole –– the company thrives when people are face to face. The push and pull between these two ideas are helping companies establish hybrid models that work with their different cultures. The key is bringing together the capacity for change and aligning it with each company’s culture.
What flexibility means in a post-Covid work environment and how companies can adapt.
Daniel Bender, Senior Associate, Strategy at Unispace
We have learned that flexibility isn’t a one-size-fit- all term. The idea bends to meet everyone’s needs. To have a conversation around flexibility and apply it effectively in the workplace starts with understanding what individuals want, need, and their day-to-day behaviors.
It’s this understanding that’s changing the way we’re thinking about a post-Covid workplace. We’re looking at it more holistically now. It is not just an office anymore. It is an environment that extends from the central workplace to the home office now. It also includes technology that can virtually bring us together. It’s important to understand how each of these components come together to support each employee. That understanding helps us build profiles for what flexibility looks like for individual companies.
Flexibility isn’t just about working from home or the office, either. It’s impacting how we design spaces. Take the individual-assigned workspace, for example. It was already in flux before Covid. And now, it’s at the end of its shelf life. How do we start to redesign spaces where different types of work flex and where people can still feel a sense of belonging without a personal assigned desk? And how do we create fewer single-purpose spaces within an office? The design implications are fascinating. With new technology, rooms can serve multiple purposes. Huddle rooms can become wellness spaces, for example. In a post-Covid work environment, we’re going to need spaces that adapt from day to day depending on the people who are working there.
Ultimately, how flexibility manifests itself depends on two things: an organization’s culture and its policies. If there are not strong policies around flexibility, it won’t work well. And if the cultural fit doesn’t match, it won’t work either.
Using behavioral predictions to inform design decisions.
Kelly Griffin, Principal at NBBJ
The pandemic has fundamentally changed us––mentally, physically, and emotionally. While we can’t predict every behavior as we return to the office, we do know this: employees are going to come back with a mix of emotions that include anxiety, fear, and some catharsis too.
Ultimately, we are social animals. Our success as a species largely comes down to our ability to work together. So, we assume one of the main drivers for people actually wanting to return to the office will be the chance to catch up and rebuild trust and connections after a long year off. Companies should look at tuning their workplace so the physical environment can respond to the need for respite, recovery, and restoration.
We’re also learning that physical environments that connect employees to nature can have an immensely positive impact. The same thing goes for having peers they can talk to as they recover. Giving them the physical tools to go outside, take a walk, or talk to coworkers every 90 minutes when the brain starts to shut down can support wellbeing, but companies need to build these activities into their environments and champion them vocally.
We’re going to convince people to come back to the office by making it a place where they feel supported and nurtured in ways the home office can’t. Making the spaces feel more open with improved ventilation helps. But companies also need to redefine the office around social activity and wellbeing.
The amenities arms race we saw before Covid has shifted into a conversation around the higher purpose’s amenities should serve. There is a universal desire to account for wellness as a whole now. And that means not simply filling our days and offices with activities. We need to design spaces that support us mentally, spiritually, and physically.
As we wrapped up our conversation, one thing became clear. While we don’t have the answers to everything, they will be different for everyone. The pandemic has changed all of us, and it can change the workplace for the better if we can only step back and start with the right questions. Framing the challenges of tomorrow correctly, putting people and behaviors at the heart of our decision making, and bringing data and research into the equation can create a new environment. One where employees feel supported. And one that’s unique to every organization’s culture.