The notion of returning to the office as we knew it is flawed. HOK’s Caitlin Turner shares how COVID has handed us the opportunity to address what wasn’t working.
As the pandemic-driven work-from-home mode comes up on one year, the cracks are beginning to show. The social capital that bolstered many organizations has diminished. Mental health and wellbeing for many have suffered as we see an emerging potential crisis. The productivity spikes observed early on during stay-at-home orders have now dwindled, as isolation, and tedium have taken their toll.
But at the same time the notion that we can return to the office as it once was is flawed. As people question whether the office is a thing of the past, we in turn must consider what the office of the future could look like. To do that, we must first acknowledge the flaws and gaps that existed in the workplace prior to the pandemic.
Work-related stress and burnout were at an all-time high. Density of space was at capacity. Daily commuting was polluting the planet and draining our energy. Authenticity and meaningful human connection were missing, despite our ability to be more connected than ever before.
In order to devise a new, healthier and more rewarding workspace, we must reconcile the core issues that shaped the pre-pandemic office:
- Stress and burnout undermined work-life balance, leaving the workforce largely disengaged. We need to empower the health and wellbeing of our largest asset — our people.
- Under-utilized, inflexible office space We need to define the purpose of place and enable rapid, responsive change.
- Social inequity was infrequently addressed. We need to create diverse, inclusive, welcoming, and humane spaces for all.
- Social connection was tenuous and shallow. We need to help people reconnect authentically, to help them feel safe and valued, and to empower them with options, choice and control.
- Rapid evolution of technology was having significant impacts, both positive and negative, on spaces and people. We need to ensure balance.
- Focus on productivity was myopic. We need to shift our focus to innovation, to ensure business continuity and relevance.
- Hygiene and cleanliness practices were stagnant. We need new, enhanced ways to address cleanliness and durability, and must look for opportunities to reduce touchpoints.
- Talent retention and upskilling were often an afterthought. We need to embed lifelong learning opportunities, enable mentorship and knowledge transfer, and rethink when, where and how we work to keep our workforce relevant and engaged.
- Climate change action has been passively addressed. We need to go beyond simply meeting certification and tackle time-sensitive environmental issues in a holistic, comprehensive manner.
We must imagine physical spaces and best practices that truly address our needs, both now and in the future. To begin, we need to move beyond the notion that work happens in a singular place. Instead, we need to create an ecosystem of spaces that, no matter their location and form, support positive work behaviours and empower task completion, engagement and satisfaction.
Hub, Home and Spoke
Research suggests employees feel most satisfied and engaged when they can work remotely between one and two days per week, while still maintaining access to the office, their colleagues, and the organizational culture. We must empower employees with options and solutions that embody the idea that access is the new ownership. The sharing economy is helping to reshape the workplace, better utilize space allocation and is driving the need to create destinations where people want to be. Distributed work is evolving and we can leverage community to increase the sharing potential for not only amenities, but workplaces as well.
The hybrid model of Hub, Home and Spoke can help create an ecosystem that serves your organization and the employees you support.
The Hub is the heart of the organization and a physical embodiment of its culture. It’s a place where employees connect with each other, their clients, and the brand. The Hub offers space that: builds energy and buzz; breeds engagement and innovation; fosters community, collisions, and mentorship; and provides opportunities for people to gather, share meals, trade ideas, and have serendipitous moments and conversations.
Hub spaces should be flexible, tech-forward, and able to act as a driver of collaboration; they provide something uniquely different from what’s offered by the Spoke and Home environments. The benefits of the Hub will be measured by innovation, co-creation, increased social capital, and business resiliency.
The Home serves as a place to do individual task-based work and concentrative work. It’s also a place to contemplate, connect and learn virtually. The benefits are clear: dedicated, personalized space; work-life balance; elimination of commute; and potential increased access to natural light and fresh air.
To help staff produce their best work effectively and efficiently from home while feeling engaged and healthy, organizations need to create the right ergonomic toolkit. This toolkit could include headsets, monitor arms, ergonomic seating options, and sit-to-stand desks, and may be created by leveraging existing agreements and buying power. Encourage staff to create at-home workspaces and rituals that support their mental and physical wellbeing. Workspaces should be in proximity to daylight, include biophilic elements such as plants and art, and support the ritual of coffee or other beverages to begin their day.
The Spoke serves as a gathering space and individual workspace for those who don’t need to be at the Hub, but who are seeking amenities beyond what the Home can offer. The Spoke can take the form of a small satellite office, a coworking environment, coffee shop or a condo business centre.
Spoke spaces will encourage employees to come together to connect with both clients and colleagues and will offer an alternative to the Home for concentrative head-down tasks. It will provide more professional meeting settings and enhanced technology access, but without the long commute to the Hub. Compared with the Hub, Spoke spaces may be a more affordable real estate leasing option and provide better connection to outdoor spaces.
The pandemic disrupted the workplace as we knew it. We can address this disruption by embracing it as an opportunity to rethink how we can best serve our companies, clients, and workforce. The reimagined ecosystem provided by the hybrid Hub, Home and Spoke model imbues each workspace setting with a purpose of place. It can ignite creativity, strengthen engagement, improve amenities, and accelerate the digital footprint. As we implement this new ecosystem, we shift away from the mindset of one office, one desk, one type of work. We make way (and room!) for new ideas and settings that support our goals.
How do we get there?
Enabling the workplace of the future requires tools that help bridge the experiences of different workplace settings. Emerging smart technologies have the potential to reshape how we approach both work and the workplace. Workplace apps that leverage data from the IoTs and sensors to help empower employees with the information needed so they have options, choices and control. Augmented reality, virtual reality, holographic suites, and other elements of the virtual experience economy can allow for a level of virtual participation not previously imaginable. Robotics can create efficiencies within office services, packages, and food delivery. Digital brand messaging can be woven throughout the different workspace forms, encouraging employees and guests to engage with the brand through social media platforms and digital storytelling.
Authenticity and substance
To create balance, we must counter these digital moments with authentic experiences. Substance is back in style and a new model of ‘high-touch’ in a no-touch world is emerging where people crave hands-on. This can be observed through the rise of community pop-ups, people rallying behind local business, and the return to “slow living” activities such as bread-making, gardening, and apiculture.
Authentic environments are the key to finding this new balance between the virtual and the physical. Consider blended programming that includes rotating food offerings, such as guest cafés, food trucks and community partnerships. Reimagine your street-level experience by providing opportunities for passersby to engage with your brand. Envision your lobbies as spaces for people to gather, refuel, connect, and collaborate. These offerings encourage staff to partake in activities that connect them with colleagues and the community through authentic experiences.
Environmental and personal health
To create a future-ready evolved workplace, commit to designing spaces that are not only environmentally sustainable, but that go beyond green to become blue. Green spaces traditionally focus on the environmental impact whereas blue spaces focus on the wellbeing of occupants in addition to the environment. A sustainable future depends on these core blue principles: regenerative spaces; carbon neutrality; reducing embodied carbon; and leveraging circularity. Expand these principles to be greater than plants — rethink materials, consider patterns that emulate nature, select diffused lighting, and leverage outdoor workspaces with provisions for solar screening, power, and enhanced technology.
The strength and success of the new workplace ecosystem can be gauged in part by the health and wellbeing of the participating workforce. Movement is critical to engagement; we must provide access to fitness opportunities, showers, and interconnected stairs. Outdoor space also promotes physical and mental health while building team culture and offering networking capabilities. Look beyond the traditional wellness room by giving employees place and time to connect with sound, music, and meditation, and consider implementing areas with nature sounds and music instead of white noise. Think about creating non-work spaces that can be used to enhance engagement, productivity and wellbeing.
We believe the notion of returning to the office as we knew it is flawed. We need to acknowledge that our pre-pandemic workplaces were not working; we need to address what was broken in order to move forward. COVID has handed us the opportunity to do so.
Now is the time for us to not only be reactive to the pandemic and its effects, but proactive in reimagining where and how we work — to meet the needs of all as we transition out of this pandemic and into a new normal. It’s time to be bold, to cast a wide net, to take a new approach. It’s time to design with courage, so we can innovate and evolve.