Despite the growing prevalence of technology in the office and its profound influence on work during the past 40 to 50 years, office environmental design has changed very little since the 1970s.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven a major catalyst for change, precipitating a massive paradigm shift in how companies and their stakeholders perceive physical office space and the role it plays within an organization.
The reimagining of work is being played out today as a hybrid model, where knowledge workers – who have traditionally worked in an office environment – have adapted to working from virtually anywhere: at home, on the road, or back in the office part time. Meanwhile, the success of remote working has shown a new path forward for how organizations manage workspaces and the people who occupy those spaces.
For most organizations, real estate accounts for the second highest expenditure, after talent. Now with many of these same organizations deploying a hybrid workforce model, forward-looking organizations have begun to examine more closely the future of the office footprint.
From Smart Buildings to Smart Workforce Management
The growing prevalence of sensor technology within physical environments have made building structures significantly “smarter,” though almost exclusively around building performance, often tied to green initiatives including measuring and curbing energy consumption to building function automation.
But what about the user? Afterall, the whole purpose of an office is to support the people who work in that space. As a result, most organizations tend to under subscribe on space utilization. When programming a building’s environment, organizations typically design around chairs and desk space as the primary factor. But with the emergence of mass remote working, organizations are realizing that there are certain jobs and functions where workers can be just as, if not more, productive while working outside the office. This phenomenon is forcing companies to entirely rethink how office space should be utilized.
The Reimagined Office
Forward-looking organizations are moving away from the desk-chair paradigm to one focused on creating collaborative, community-like spaces for employees to come together while shifting the focal workspace to remote or home environments. Tied to this rethinking of space utilization is exploring how technology can help facilitate not just effective collaboration but creating a safe and comfortable environment for all subjects.
In the near term, that technology manifests in creating effective contact-tracing programs, monitoring people occupancy, and reorganizing spaces to help ensure COVID-19 social distancing protocols can be followed, or even exploring the implementation of touchless technology – from operating elevators to shared conference call equipment.
These sorts of technologies take advantage of the explosion of IoT devices and sensors that are coming on to the network. Corporate IT must take care to integrate, provision, track, and secure them while creating a seamless user experience across its wired, wireless, and WAN infrastructures from the traditional data center, to the cloud, and increasingly, to the edge.
Longer term, while real estate designers want to take a bold approach to reducing excess space and repurposing workspace layouts so that they’re more suitable for collaboration, they are making informed decisions using data generated by IoT sensors and devices. Utilizing this data gives space planners a view on how the space is actually being used in real-life – as opposed to in theory – so that they can make the right decisions at the right time, avoiding costly miscalculations and disruption to the overall workspace environment.
Part of that process may include the concept of hot desking, where employees will no longer maintain their own dedicated space. For example, when an employee arrives at the office, they will sit in a different spot each day, which will require organizations to think how they facilitate and organize that space both physically and technologically, including developing digital mapping tools to show employees where they might be sitting that day, all the while ensuring that the employee experience is virtually the same from desk to desk, from home to the road.
Crucial to success for these types of models is ensuring that IT teams can provide the same experience, the same access, tied together with rich collaboration tools that provide low latency with always-on performance no matter where that employee is physically located across the world.
Hybrid Workspaces Require Cross-Functional Collaboration and Patience
Creating a similar experience from the home, to the office, to the road, will require significant collaboration across not just IT, but human resources, operations, internal communications, and virtually every other aspect of the business, from supporting the ergonomic functionality of remote workers through to ensuring connectivity in the event of an outage in a city or region where employees reside.
Ultimately, as the office environment experiences its first true major shift in 50 years, the pace of that change must align with the needs of the organization. Those changes will happen iteratively; every organization is different and not all changes will be adopted at the same pace or even at all. Failure is inevitable in some cases, but with the proper level of experimentation and thoughtfulness spread across key constituents, organizations can find the right balance within the “new normal.” How the hybrid office environment ultimately shakes out remains uncertain, but what is certain is the office environment of yesterday will never fully return.