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  • The risks to workplace strategy posed by viral outbreaks will remain in future.
  • Businesses are adopting new strategies to mitigate these risks.
  • Hybrid ways of working will require alteration of work spaces to accommodate a different mix of work activities.
  • Fully-remote ways of working have other risks which need to be dealt with early through planning, but present opportunities for convention venues.

COVID Changes will be permanent

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused changes to the workplace which will never be entirely reversed. Disease experts tell us that COVID is unlikely to be the last pandemic we face, and it is clear now that established systems are slow to adapt to these events. Consequently, hygiene measures to contain infectious disease transmission are likely to remain in place even after high vaccination rates have been achieved. Whatever their precise form, we can expect offices of the future to be significantly different from those we know today. 

While the requirements of a hygienic office reduce the number of people that can use a workspace at once, their impact could be offset by reduced demand from workers. The adoption of remote working forced by COVID-19 lockdowns showed that many jobs could be carried out away from a centralised office, either wholly or partially. A recent survey of 30,000 American workers suggested most employers intend to continue remote working to some extent, and a recent research paper found that 37% of all job roles can be done from home. Urban mobility measured by Google more than 12 months into pandemic restrictions showed significantly lower workplace attendance compared to pre-pandemic levels. This is the case even among places with high levels of vaccination (40% reduction in Tel Aviv) and few restrictions (25% reduction in Miami). This suggests that we can expect the reduced demand for in-office workspaces to continue in a post-COVID world.

With such a change in both requirements and demand for work spaces, office and portfolio managers are adapting to a post-COVID world with new workplace usage and design strategies.

Hybrid Work will change optimal use and design of the workplace

Changes to workplace usage will require new scheduling solutions. Although many companies are planning to reduce their office space, most will expect employees in the office for part of the week; a hybrid remote modality. Team scheduling will be a focus, with customised routines to ensure that collaboration in person can still take place. Products like Robin or Skedda, that allow employees to book their own spaces, will help in successful execution of a hybrid strategy. 

Changes in office demand will also require companies to alter their floor plans and designs. Companies may achieve this by having less individually assigned space, sharing desks, or by having fewer conference rooms to improve equality between office- and home-based meeting participants. These changes increase the flexibility of the space for a new mix of office users who will have a much stronger and more diverse set of needs. This will require more customised environments with more room features facilitating specific types of work.

Office and portfolio managers will need to work with business leaders and managers to find the new mix of spaces that fits their company in a world where desk work is more commonly done from home. 

Embracing Fully Remote Deliberately

There is a difference between successful, proactive remote working strategies and ineffective, reactive ones. With the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies made the transition to fully remote working in a rushed and unplanned manner. These adverse conditions may prompt decision makers to abandon fully remote working as soon as possible and ‘get back to normal’. However, as CEO of remote working solution provider First Base, Chris Herd, noted, “Almost everyone who complains about remote work does so by highlighting the problems with pandemic remote work”. The impact of an unplanned and immediate change to fully remote work should not be compared with the impact of using a phased, planned approach.

Alternatively, some organisations are deciding to simply continue the status quo established during the pandemic. After all, many successful companies like DuckDuckGo and GitHub have operated fully remotely since their conception. However, organisations who choose to embrace fully remote work do so at the risk of losing their unique culture.

The loss of culture caused by fully remote working impacts wellbeing, collaboration, productivity and internal communication. While remote working is preferred by a majority of people, it also makes them feel less cared for and less heard in the organisation less engaged with their team, and motivated to complete tasks. This is due at least in part to the loss of shared ways of thinking and working that occur when co-working in an office.

To combat this risk, there will be increased demand for spaces suited to in-person summits of small remote teams. Teams, and entire organisations, that become fully remote as a response to ongoing hygiene requirements will adopt the regular in-person summits long popular among distributed international teams in  larger companies including Facebook and Unilever. These summits will create demand for suitable spaces, with money saved on permanent physical space, being redirected to these events. By engaging in regular summits, teams can ensure that reduced office space doesn’t impact company culture.

There will be a gap between demand and supply of in-person small summit spaces. Presently, there is little suitable supply for internal summits of small remote teams. Best practice suggests the most appropriate spaces are close to an accessible airport, offer suitable recreational activities for team bonding, and offer space for groups between 10-100 employees as well as break out rooms. Most conference venues and hotels cater for much larger groups and are optimised for inter-organisation networking spaces while lacking the basic facilities for team collaboration like white boards and power outlets. This presents new opportunities for smaller operators.

With the ongoing impact of pandemic measures, property owners and building managers will need to work with office users, tenants, and company leadership to rethink workspaces for a totally new way of working.

Alex Rutherford is a Senior Research Scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. He leads research on Machines and the Future of Work, and is a member of the European Society for Learning and Intelligent Systems. He has over a decade of applied research experience into human behaviour including MIT, Facebook and the UN, and advises several organisations on innovation and technology.

Jegar Pitchforth is a Data Scientist and co-founder of Mirror Analytics. He has produced a range of work in operational management, bioinformatic processing and online experimentation, publishing the first peer-reviewed controlled trial of office designs in a working organisation. 

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