Returning to the Physical Workplace – What’s At Stake?

Susan Mulholland investigates the necessary design elements to create the workplace of the future. 

Image via Unsplash

During the past nine months everyone has been debating, predicting, and even mandating the return to the office based on a few very consistent assumptions. This never ending discussion has made some impact on our beliefs that when we do make the choice to return to our buildings full time that certain things will need to change, the recent “great resignation” has fueled this debate even more. People who are quitting their jobs based on a variety of reasons, but the most consistent has been since the pandemic’s sudden switch to remote work, people are deciding what they want and need in the workplace, and they do not want to be told when, how, and where to work.

Designers Are Not Human Resource Managers

The planning and design of our office’s spaces will require a shift in perspective. Designers who design workplace environments are well aware of the issues surrounding the return of office workers. What we are all saying and this if anything will be the most critical part of the equation: Human resources and management at all levels need to be present and accountable during these discussions.

Remote work, flexibility and even a change in how accountability for productivity is assessed will need to be in place before anyone who’s job requires a building will return with confidence. Those who design workspaces for people, these designs work best when there is a symbiosis between the physical space and the operational policies that run the business.

The planning and design of our office’s spaces will require a shift in perspective.

Workplace Solutions Should Be Fluid

Interior Designers, Architects, Workplace Strategists, and allied professionals who address the office design conundrum will be challenged with various opinions and suggestions from a variety of perspectives. Everyone has their own take on how to recreate the office space plan so that it accommodates a sense of security and privacy. But because we have agreed that flexibility and preserving the company’s culture need to be at the forefront; careful evaluation of the most recent office designs may be the answer to this problem. We already know what wasn’t working in the pre-pandemic workplaces.

Now we know more. The pandemic has shown a bright light on all of our buildings and what issues they present to our wellbeing. Workplace design will need to address more than just furniture and finishes, it will need to account for the buildings ability to keep us healthy.

What Statistics Have Shown on Worker Occupancy Demand

Design is all about adaptation and addressing challenges that come from the complete physical environment (the actual construction and mechanical limitations of that building) to the organizational challenges that are constantly present whenever people are involved. The current statistics show that human resource management has been predicting what the return to the office will look like in terms of actual employees being present in the office based on these assumptions:

  • That there will be a 30% reduction in headcount due to change in job duties or decision to work remotely permanently for another company
  • Of the remaining 50% there will be a need to be in the same place at the same time to work efficiently in permanent teams who interact not only with customers but with each other using more than just a computer screen
  • Then of that 50% the time they will need is only two days a week (which two days are up for debate)

Workplace design will need to address more than just furniture and finishes…

What is Old Might Be New Again

Depending on the original square footage of the pre-COVID offices and the amenities that management or property owners provided; this is not as big of a design challenge as one might think. If an office was reconfigured or redesigned in the last five years it already has some form of flexible workspace, on the other hand, if the current office has not been redesigned in 10-15 years, this may be more of a challenge.

Design concepts that have featured a less condensed furniture plan will have the advantage. So will offices that still use a traditional panel system simply because they are already separating workers and have the needed barriers in place for distancing from others. With the cubicle office plan, all that may need to occur is reconfiguring the panels into a smaller group with wider areas in between the panel groupings. If there is already a large amount of square footage currently leased for these furniture configurations. Going with this option may be the best alternative to moving or needing a complete redesign of the  entire office. It may also bring workers back to the office sooner by its very nature, each worker has their own space that would be protected from someone else’s work area.

Employee Team Dynamics

Another consideration for a design to be flexible is to have an opportunity for employees to provide input, in concert with the facilities and HR teams along with the professional design team. This would be an organic plan that truly embraces the value of flexible and adaptable design. How fast can you create a collaboration space with only a few items of furniture, a mobile white board and a monitor now seems more plausible than before.

Current furniture configurations with less complicated seating and work surfaces already provide flexible workspaces, now with reliable mobile technology this is the heart of this design plan. Creating areas that can do double duty for a variety of tasks may make this the best solution for most firms. Having “movable walls” or dividers that are easy to move but provide some form of acoustics will also make this environment more flexible. The only thing that will be missing is the need for privacy.

Image via Unsplash

Why Solitude is in High Demand

Privacy for solo work was lacking in the most recent pre COVID office designs. This is the most missed from the old days of cubicles and large conference rooms. An empty conference room was perfect for large solo or two person projects that needed the extra space to spread out without interruption. Open plans had only one or two of these rooms if they had any.

This missing link to creating a workspace that has the best of both office plans – contract furniture manufacturers are betting on this being true. Their hunch is on the creation of private workspaces that are not permanent. The introduction of phone booths and self-contained pods like small conference rooms with windows, built in technology and acoustics. This solution is not necessarily to replace drywall and glass construction, but to provide the privacy that we want without the down time it takes to create a physical room with those conventional methods.

Wellbeing at the Forefront

Personally, I am not sure it will solve the bigger questions of health and wellbeing. We still need to address the air circulation issues that many of these buildings have as well as access to natural lighting and accessible outdoor space that can function like the indoor office. These are the most consistent design elements regarding the new office plan that have come out of the many discussions from thought leaders in the past eighteen months on the subject. But these concepts are not new. Many of the ideas previously suggested were designs that were presented several years ago pre-pandemic.

The concern then was the cost and the thought of change. These ideas were challenging for some to people in management to consider let alone adapt as part of a new way of working. Changing one’s viewpoint, especially when it is the president or CEO of the company on what is efficient space utilization and design is never an easy task, but now the challenge may be easier to overcome.

More companies are moving towards remote work and flexible in office scheduling out of necessity to return sooner than later to the office environment.

Flexible or Remote?

More companies are moving towards remote work and flexible in office scheduling out of necessity to return sooner than later to the office environment. But even though the numbers are showing more of a desire to keep this compromise, our collective mindset is still trying to go back to the office full time, but with the idea that we will need to have freedom of choice to make this happen.

As the idea of choice comes to the forefront, we are still facing some unknowns that are keeping most of us from making a clear decision on what place and space we want to work in. Everyone has their own preferred way of working and that includes what is the best time to be productive doing solo activities or collaborating with others. Collectively we rely on company culture and hierarchy to informally dictate this, but management will need to establish boundaries as they always do. If you view your co-workers as your work family, then management seems to always take on the role of the parent, which means they won’t just leave everything up to the kids to make these decisions.

Image via Unsplash

Freedom vs. Control

One of the most common complaints unfortunately even before COVID was just that: employees are done with being treated like children and the managerial hierarchy for determining this is not changing even though most managers who were not fans of remote work before the pandemic, are now seeing the benefits. The statistics and surveys that have been conducted over the past eighteen months have shown that there are some key benefits for working remotely both for the employee and employer.

Freedom to decide what works is the main concern facing most workers today. How this relates to the space planning and design of an office or work environment takes an honest assessment of what we already define as an office. Now is the time to tweak these work environments to include what they were lacking in the first place: privacy, well designed acoustics, an accessible outdoor environment, cleaner air circulation and personal space.

Freedom to decide what works is the main concern facing most workers today.

Noise-Free Productivity

Personal space is what we lacked most in the recent evolution of office design pre-pandemic. The biggest complaint among all ages of workers was the lack of privacy. Noise, which is often the reason for this request, is also an issue. If privacy means a noise free environment, then it seems natural to want to desire it, especially now. Our world no matter if we are working or not is filled with noise that seems to be surrounding us. Being able to find a peaceful calming space to think is something that we as humans need for our mental health and wellbeing.

The pandemic made all of us realize that working long hours and being inundated with noise and deadlines only make us feel less productive. Research has shown that being able to take breaks and even short naps make people feel less stressed. Creating office spaces that take these issues into account will make our work environments more desirable. We need to be able to separate our homes where we focus on our family and personal life from our public work life. Cleaver design that takes in account these needs will do that.

What Our Future Holds

Working from anywhere is not going to solve all of our problems. Neither is creating the ultimate office environment. Interior designers who understand the true nature of the human condition and spirit know this instinctively. They understand that humans need safety and shelter but also each other to be successful. The successful interior designs of the future will be ones that see this as the primary goal of every interior environment, not just the office. With all that has transpired in the past eighteen months, our work life in particular has seen the most disruption. We need to now put into practice what we have been imaging, designing, and planning as our future work environment. Only then will we see what our next steps will be for the true future of work.

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