2021 Trends: Reimagining an Ecosystem for Work

HOK’s Kay Sargent kicks off our 2021 trends series exploring why we must evolve beyond the notion of the office to reimagining an ecosystem for work. Stay tuned for more 2021 trend predictions all month long!

Patelco’s Headquarters in Dublin, California. Photo courtesy of David Wakely.

This article was developed as a collaboration between HOK and Steelcase.

The Case for Change

For the past several years we have watched as industry after industry has disrupted and forced to evolve. The retail sector has been rocked by Amazon, the hotel sector by Airbnb, and the taxi service by Uber and Lyft. But there has also been disruption in the commercial real estate industry, thanks to coworking and now COVID-19. The whole world is asking a fundamental question “what is the future of work?” If we are myopic and focused too narrowly on addressing only the challenge COVID has presented us with regarding how and where people work, we will miss the bigger opportunity to address the real challenges we are facing today.

The “Aha” Moment:

The notion of “returning to the office” is flawed. We need to acknowledge the things that weren’t working before COVID-19 and instead of returning to them, address them as we move forward. We need to evolve beyond the notion of “an office” to “reimagining an ecosystem” of spaces that truly addresses our needs – now and in the future.   

Minding the gaps

Let’s acknowledge that there are other factors and influences at play here in additional to the challenges COVID has pointed out.

1. Stress and burnout are at an all-time high.

  • work-life balance is out of sync
  • the workforce is largely unengaged
  • there is a lack of awareness regarding our sensory intelligence
  • health and wellbeing are suffering
  • we are living and working longer and need time for sabbaticals to refresh and reskilling

2. Climate change needs to be address more holistically and time is of the essence.

  • unsustainable commute
  • energy consumption
  • regenerative practices
  • adaptive reuse
  • resiliency

3. Under-utilized, inflexible office space is abundant and needs to be addressed.

  • use the space we have effectively
  • define the purpose of place
  • create compelling spaces people want to be in
  • enable more rapid change than a typical 10-year lease terms allow
  • embrace the sharing economy
  • fusion elements from other sectors into solutions
  • address the economic pressures

4. Social inequity

  • address racial, regional, agism, social economic, ethnic, sexual orientation, gender, religious and physical abilities
  • design for neurodiversity
  • create humane spaces

5. Social connection yet safety

  • creating space where we, as social creatures, thrive when we are together
  • provide balance, options, choice and control
  • allow for prospect and refuge
  • address cultural aspects

6. Rapid evolution of technology

  • Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality
  • automation, AI balance of man and machine
  • biometrics
  • robotics
  • augmentation
  • holograms

7. Shift from productivity to innovation

  • enable innovation to ensure relevance
  • silo-busting
  • divergent creativity

8. Cleanliness

  • inherent cleanliness and durability
  • reduce touchpoints
  • ease of cleaning
  • opportunities for improved hygiene

9. Need to upskill/ retain workforce to keep them relevant over the course of their careers

  • embed life-long learning opportunities
  • enable mentoring and transfer of knowledge
  • different tasks require different spaces
  • enable both in-person and remote collaboration

Key Finding

We have the opportunity for disruptive creativity. The challenge is to look beyond today and see what lies ahead so we can adapt accordingly. After all, we don’t get the opportunity to rethink everything often. But going back to the same situation that brought us to this point is not the answer.

  1. We need to evolve to a new system where the “office” is replaced with an “ecosystem” of spaces that meet the needs of the day.
  2. We need to empower people with options and choices to fit the array of needs today.
  3. We need to shift from fixed to fluid and create environments that agile enough to meet our needs as they evolve.
  4. We need to rethink the purpose of place and create compelling environments, fit to purpose, that entice people to be there.
  5. Access is the new ownership. If you don’t need to own it – don’t. Consider leveraging the community and the shared economy or emerging membership model to meet your large conference or training needs, to provide services and access to amenities and even to meet your furniture needs.
  6. Leverage technology to reduce touchpoints and create space that are more responsive to individuals then forcing us to adapt to the space. We have an opportunity to transform the user experience and transform the IoTs to the IoE (experiences) where information is put into the hands of individuals so they can curate their own experience. 

The New Ecosystem of Work

  1. HUB – The heart of the organization. The physical embodiment of the culture and the place where staff come together to connect with each other and clients. The hub serves as an engagement center and innovation hub.
  2. SPOKE or SATELLITE – Serves as a place where staff can come together in a casual atmosphere to connect primarily with colleagues and clients. This space also serves as a gathering space and individual workspaces for those not needing to be at the Hub and seeking more than the home environment may offer.
  3. HOME – Remote work capacities for those that either can’t or choose not to come into a centralized location. These spaces serve as a place where staff can do heads-down concentrative work, focus or remote into virtual meetings when a physical presence is not required.

Call to Action:

We need to embrace the opportunity to address the disruption being brought forth and proactively rethink how we can best serve our clients, companies and the workforce. We need to innovate and evolve. If we fail to seize the moment and realize the shifts in the market and user demands that were already occurring and are on the horizon then this might be our Kodak moment.

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