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After the Pandemic – What’s next for Smart Workplaces?

‘Smart Working’ describes that combination of flexible working practices, digital technologies and ‘activity-based’ workplaces that support more choice and mobility.

Organisations already on the Smart Working journey and embracing ‘flexibility as normal’ have been in a much better position to carry on operating through the Covid-19 crisis. Shifting a workforce to work primarily from home is less of a challenge if remote working and use of digital collaboration technologies is already in the DNA of the organisation.

Other organisations have had to hastily improvise their remote working response. For these it has been a rapid learning experience, a tactical response involving much innovation.

But what does this mean for a post-pandemic world? Does this mean we can just happily revert to the workplaces we had at the start of 2020?

In this article I’ll be looking at how the experience of large-scale home-based working and the big acceleration in virtual working should impact the future Smart Workplace.

“Remote working” is here to stay

First, we can expect to see much increased levels of remote working.

Many organisations report that previous blockers to implementing Smart Working were swept away overnight. And these organisations are finding that overall working from home does actually work. Most employees report being happy with this, and that they are equally or more productive.

The case for working full-time at a workplace separate from home has more or less disappeared for millions of employees

Yes, there are things that can be difficult for some people (e.g. in homes where space to work is limited), and there are some practices that need to be improved. But the case for working full-time at a workplace separate from home has more or less disappeared for millions of employees. Even in very hands-on sectors like healthcare or manufacturing, many tasks that people do are amenable to being done elsewhere – a trend that will continue through the use of more advanced systems and automation.

Surveys generally indicate that once the pandemic is over, we’re looking at a doubling of the numbers of people working from home both full-time and part of the time. For those doing it part of the time, we’re looking at a doubling of the frequency of their remote working days.

Apart from very cash-rich organisations – and there are very few of them these days – the future almost certainly involves reducing real estate as a result. But for best results, the reduced space needs to be made fit for 21st century working and for providing a great human and social experience.

Rethinking the interface between the collective workplace and the home workplace

There’s an ingrained cultural tendency after 200 years of Industrial Age working to assume the primacy of the collective workplace, a place separate from home. Remote workers – as the name suggest – are then seen as kind of peripheral attachments. Smart Working, however, aims to create a culture where this is not so.

We’re looking now at a situation where we need to rethink what “remote” actually means.

When the people working in the office are outnumbered by those working from other locations, we need to ask, “Who is actually the remote worker?” The people in the office just as remote as those working elsewhere.

One practical consequence of this is that we urgently need to rethink meeting rooms. A person in the office joining a team meeting might well be the only person in a meeting room. Future design needs to look at smaller and more varied connected collaboration spaces.

Enclosed pods have become a feature of many activity-based workspaces. In addition to these there is a greater need for semi-enclosed bays for taking away ad hoc (video/screensharing) calls from areas where others might be disturbed.

There’s also a need for larger and more interactive screens and intelligent surfaces, so a few people can assemble in front for a stand-up where they join with people joining in from other locations.

Creating excellent acoustics – both in terms of the physical space and the digital audio environment – need to move centre stage for these settings.

Socialising and event space

In the workplace industry over the past couple of years there’s been a developing narrative about seeing the office as “event space”. This reflects a recognition (or aspiration?) about the workplace’s centrality as a place for activities that involve social interaction, while most other activities can be done from many other locations.

While the distinction between focus work and collaborative work is drawn too hard by a kind of emerging wisdom, in knowledge-based organisations functions the added value of being in the office is about the human social experience of getting together, whether for specific work activities, teambuilding or just some R&R.

So we’re looking at the need for high quality spaces that add to the human experience. Due to the variety of purposes for getting together, there’s a need for both different types of spaces, and for reconfigurable spaces.

Many of these spaces should have the technologies and large screens that will enable more life-like interactions with colleagues who are working productively elsewhere, yet who should still be included in these more socially-oriented events and activities.

Coworking bouncing back

Coworking spaces, or workhubs, were one of the fastest-growing sectors of commercial property in the past decade. Some have taken a hit over the periods of lockdown. But there is renewed interest in their possibilities.

One change that is happening is that more employees (as opposed to freelancers, microbusinesses and the self-employed) are looking to use ones that are local to them, as an alternative to working from home all the time.

Increasingly, businesses will be willing to support this. So the coworking option needs to be seen as part of any property asset management plan going forward. This option, like homeworking, impacts the calculation about how much do businesses need their own space, and how much can be provided on an as-needed basis through coworking?

The coworking model is also relevant to the internal space employers provide. Quality touchdown space is a must. And there is potential for the corporate coworking spaces to be places where their customers and partners can also touch down to work, in a high value blurring of boundaries

Quality quiet space

It’s long been noted that there can be a tendency to under-provide quiet space where people can get on with high-concentration work.

As offices shrink, as they surely will in the light of increased remote working, it is important not to think of the office as solely event space.

When people make the journey in for more socially interactive work, it almost certainly won’t be the only thing they are doing that day. The touchdown and coworking spaces may not provide the right environment for high concentration tasks that still need to get done.

And for some employees, personal preference or the lack of a good environment at home will mean they prefer to work at the office. Having a range of spaces they can do this is important, while resisting the trap of cramming the office full of desks again.

Human and nature-friendly workplaces

Organisations are going to need to provide great places to work, otherwise employees are going to vote with their feet and stay away. Now that people know working elsewhere is both viable and permissible, what will attract them to come in?

The emphasis going forward will be providing those settings I’ve mentioned above, but also ensuring that they are high-quality, humane environments.

This means providing the range of spaces that enable choice of work setting. It means learning the findings from the research into more natural and biophilic environments. Access to natural light, fresh air, planting, outdoor space – including outdoor working spaces – are all part of the picture for fashioning a great sensory environment.

Having the range of spaces so employees can decide where and when is most appropriate to work, is central to Smart Working. Ensuring those spaces are high quality and attractive will help Smart Working to work for everyone.

There are many challenges here for workplace planning and design. We look forward to a period of innovation in design to create these attractive spaces that can work seamlessly with a substantially remote workforce.

Related article:

Issues for the design of home working environments are addressed in this article, What Are Homes For in the 21st Century