Many UK offices were not considered fit for purpose even before the pandemic. In one survey, for example, 46% of UK workers did not agree that their workplaces allowed them to work productively. Over a quarter said the office had a negative impact on their workplace productivity.
And now the post-lockdown return to work, its clear that the Covid pandemic has created a step change in the way we want to collaborate and communicate at work. Our offices have yet to catch up.
So what’s changed?
The obvious difference is that many of us are working from home, and many of us will continue to do so – at least some of the time – after the pandemic.
As a concept, flexible working was gradually gaining acceptance before lockdown. The idea that you should be able to work productively from wherever you happen to be is now pretty much ingrained in work culture.
The upshot of that is that offices are likely to be less busy in future. Different organisations have different ideas about post-pandemic working culture, but for many the switch to flexible and hybrid working patterns is likely to prove irreversible. Offices will have to house fewer employees at any one time than they did a couple of years ago.
No end to social distancing
We just don’t know how the pandemic will play out from here, and there’s a real possibility that some Covid precautions will be around for months or years to come. An easing of restrictions in the short term may lead to their reintroduction a few months down the line.
So employees may need more space for a while, at desks and in meeting rooms and communal areas. With that in mind, even reluctant businesses might be wise to accept the need for hybrid working for at least the next year or so.
The changing nature of the office
All this is leading to a profound change in how we think about offices. For many organisations, the office is no longer the place where work gets done – it’s just one of the places where work gets done.
In which case, do we really need offices at all? Why not set up employees with VPNs and let them work where they choose, whether that’s the kitchen table at home or the local coffee shop?
While this isn’t unheard of, for most businesses it’s not a realistic option. The office is still the very best location for creative teamwork, social interaction and tech-heavy tasks. It should also be remembered that some employees don’t have homes that can easily facilitate work. They may have neither the space or the peace.
The new office environment
So what should an office offer in a post-lockdown world? It needs to accommodate a number of different working scenarios.
What’s clear is that more routine and everyday work will be done away from the office, while the office will host those tasks, meetings and occasions that can’t happen at home, or at least not efficiently. That might include team meetings, brainstorming sessions with whiteboards and post-it notes, and client meetings.
But it won’t just be about collective work. Some employees with less reliable connectivity might arrange video calls with clients for the days they’re in the office, while completing more mundane tasks at home.
And as we’ve already mentioned, some employees may need full-time access to their old desk, if their homes are too cramped or noisy to accommodate home working. Nomadic work is simply not an option for everyone.
Making your office fit-for-purpose
In practical terms, what does all this mean for your workspace? It depends on a number of factors – from the size of your workforce to the sector you operate in – but here are a few possibilities:
The way you use the space you have is likely to change.
Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University, recently said of the post-pandemic workplace: “Teams will all come in on the same day – those are the days you have your meetings, presentations, client events and training.”
In which case, rows of open plan desks may not survive the pandemic, and will be replaced by more well-equipped communal areas for collaborative work.
At the same time, offices will need some areas specifically designed for focused, individual work. That’s for those who can’t work from home, and those writing essential follow-up emails after an important video conference. Employees were unhappy with office noise levels pre-pandemic. They may now demand enclosed quiet areas for reading, thinking and writing.
Most employees have the basic technology they need for routine work tasks at home – specifically a laptop, phone and internet connection. In which case, the office becomes a high-powered hub for specific tech-related tasks:
- Connectivity: if your team has a video conference with an important client, you probably don’t want it to happen via eight different internet connections of varying quality. Equip the office with a high performance solution that facilitates HD video conferencing, along with other data-hungry tasks like large file downloads and the use of AI or big data analysis.
- Security: some tasks – like those that involve handling customer data – need to be undertaken in the most secure way. Equip your office with a managed security solution and use it as the hub for sensitive tasks that really can’t be trusted to home networks.
Communications: increase space with a cloud-based communication system that lets you do away with on-premise equipment. It also means your employees make and take professional calls and enjoy the same Unified Communications features at home or in the office, without any drop in efficiency or productivity.
In conclusion, the death of the office in a post pandemic world has been greatly exaggerated. But the purpose of the office will change. Create a space that is the comfortable, well-equipped hub of a network of dispersed and on-premise workers, and reap the rewards in terms of efficiency and employee satisfaction.