While majority of the world's workforce works from home, what will have become of office space when the pandemic subsides? This article discusses factors that drive shifts in office trends and what kind of change we can expect.
With Twitter announcing their work-from-home-forever policy, Google's extension of remote work until summer next year, and majority of workforce around the world having been forced to work from home by COVID-19 pandemic, it’s got us thinking - What will become of office space? Will it be outdated? What changes will take place?
Office space before pandemic.
Companies have been competing intensely for talent through portraying themselves as a ‘great place to work’ with all the perks derived from everything an innovative office space can offer.
It's all rooted from the wisdom that an innovative office space portrays good company culture, attracts talent, and boosts productivity, so they would spend a tremendous amount of money on securing buildings in popular areas in the city and renovate with creative elements that help de-stress and improve productivity.
For employers, office space holds more promises. Aside from it attracting talent and fostering collaboration, it keeps people in one place; this gives managers a peace of mind that their staffs are working.
We often view an office space as a place for social interactions and teamwork. For some of us, being able to see our coworkers everyday creates a sense of belonging and improves our wellbeing.
But what happens when everyone works from home?
The change factors.
We’ve been told to work from home until the pandemic has subsided. Although it was an abrupt transition for many of us, we eventually found solitude and comfort in remote work, as we have the luxury of not having to commute, or wearing office clothes, being productive at our own time, and most important of all, feeling safe from the raging virus fallen upon us.
We may not return to the office the same way and here are some reasons why:
Today’s office space is no longer cubicles and mini offices for everyone; we’ve come to love, or even adapt to, the idea of a shared space and desk. The question we often ask is whether we feel safe going back to an office that’s cramped with people and sharing a desk with others in close proximity.
Will thorough temperature checks and frequent sanitizing be enough? Will it make us feel safer if everything goes back to cubicles?
When we experience a drastic change in life, it affects not just our psychological well-being, but also the way we behave.
Some of us may find working from home much calming and productive. That’s not to mention the flexibility it brings along - the autonomy to manage our time based on what’s best - and the re-ignition of relationships with people around us that was once lost due to our busy schedules.
The question we’d want to ask is whether people want to give that autonomy up completely and return back to the way things were before the pandemic. And if they happen to return, what shifts in company culture are we expecting?
We may have started to realize the high costs we pay for renting large office spaces and amenities that are not well-utilized. If people demand a flexible time policy and remote work, what is the use of having a big office space if only half of it is occupied?
Changing Nature of Jobs.
All of this is only possible partly because the nature of jobs had changed. Our work is no longer physical labour-related. If we didn’t have access to the internet and computers, or softwares that help us automate and communicate effectively, the idea of work would be almost impossible during this pandemic.
Recognizing this, how many jobs will continue to cease to exist and what new jobs will be created? If so, how can companies prepare to bridge the skill gaps?
What will become of office space?
To deeply understand the new role of office space, we’ve researched as well as spoken to key leaders from different sectors on how they view office space after pandemic. The insights below are from our observations and conversations with them.
1. Redesigning office for hygiene and safety.
The way we experience our space will be different in many ways. Sonarita Srey, Founder of core elements, an interior design and architecture studio, has been designing office and communal spaces for years, and she has remarked that the pandemic had changed our mindset towards safety with a level of significance that we shall not view office design the same way again.
“Before the pandemic, we didn’t even think twice when we entered a public space, now we cringe at the sign of touching any public surface without sanitizing our hands.
This behavioral change has led architects to install automatic doors or even biometrics like face and eye scanners to reduce physical contact. And that’s not to mention the hand sanitizers that are placed everywhere, sometimes installed on the walls for easy access.”
At the same time, Rita mentioned a change to the space structure to respond to social distancing measures.
“Imagine buildings or shops where the entrance and exits are from the same spot. I’d think that will cease to exist as it gathers too big of a crowd, and that’s what we want to avoid. We can also expect more signs everywhere that tell people to keep healthy distance or even a one-way walking traffic around the building.”
At a higher level, employees need a safe space to work at; crowded, air-conditioned space with many people sharing a desk might no longer be a viable option for health and safety.
“Workspaces will need a long-term solution for natural airflow and sunlight, I expect that will be the priority of office designs in the future. But in the meantime, we need dividers to avoid people coughing or sneezing into each other, and people should sit further away from one another for a long time until a vaccine is ready.”
This being said, it could also mean changing the materials we use to ones that are less friendly to germs.
2. Reduced office size, more usage of co-working space.
Employees might have to balance out between working from home and working at the office. For those who don’t need to meet with clients, it is sensible for them to work from home. Office functions will reduce to only the essentials like face-to-face meetings, space for casual encounters, and for work that cannot be done remotely.
With remote work becoming more feasible, the trend of co-working rises. We spoke to Carlos Estevez, Director of Factory Phnom Penh, a communal hub for startups and entrepreneurs, and he mentioned the rising need for community and co-working space.
“Due to the current climate, once traditional offices become more flexible and employees can work from anywhere, co-working spaces will see a gain. Over the past few years in operation, I saw an increase in people coming to our co-working space, from corporate employees to freelancers, and that’s not because of the space alone.”
Carlos continued to explain how co-working community has played a big role.
“I believe that people come back not only for the space, but also the community. Certainly, you can have a great home office, but you may not get a chance to meet people of diverse profiles that gather at co-working spaces. Social connections are at our core as humans, and it will still be what we need after this pandemic.”
3. Equipping with remote-friendly technologies.
When companies enable remote work, a ‘normal’ work day would consist of meetings that happen both virtually and physically as team members are distributed around the city or globe. Every part of operations will be more inclusive to remote workers who are in different timezones and locations.
That means equipping the office with tools that enhance remote meetings and brainstorming sessions. It also means adapting use of software products that help with remote teamwork and communication.
For example, if your company reaches people through events, you might want to build a space to host virtual events with great internet speed and quality camera and microphone for recording.
A great example is from a design agency based in Phnom Penh called Mäd, where designers quickly thrived from this pandemic by their early adoption of tools for remote design sprints, off-site working, and virtual collaboration. Head of Communications, Frazer MacRobert, explained why it's important to embrace such a flexible approach to working practices:
"At Mäd, we've always scoured emerging tech for the best tools that allow our team to maximize efficiency, and surpass client expectations by offering accommodating solutions for any business needs they may have. As this has been our policy since inception we were already positioned as market leaders for practices that became essential when the pandemic began."
Furthering his thoughts that remote working and digital collaboration will become the new norm, Frazer continued:
"The traditional 9-5 office had ceased to be the most effective way for a company to operate long ago; The pandemic acted as a prompt to force companies to embrace the available technology for flexible and remote solutions. Within our industry there are no advantages to following outdated structures without questioning them, and optimizing them."
We’ve come too far to go back to the office we once knew of.
The idea isn’t to eliminate office space completely - its values still stand - but to balance out between the need for social connection and face-to-face meetings to focusing intensely at home or elsewhere. Office space still fosters casual encounters that initiate creative ideas and collaboration, gives people a sense of belonging, and building social connection that cannot easily be duplicated remote.
It is time we design office space for the functions it’s commonly used for and priority the aspect of health and safety. Office space after the pandemic will support both the remote and office workers, and that, in itself, is perhaps a little positivity we are allowed to hope for in this hard time.
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