Is the game up for the office as we know it? Here’s what the experts predict we’ll do differently … and what we won’t


With just over one quarter of adults working exclusively at home at the moment, despite lockdown measures easing, it’s no surprise that experts still predict that home working will become a thing of the future, at least for a couple of days a week. But just as the government greenlights the return to work, we’re also hearing from many larger companies, such as RBS, that it’s unlikely that they (or their 50,000 workers) will return to the office as we know it until at least 2021.

With such a long time away from our desks of pasts, what will this mean for the office culture of the future? With remote working shining a spotlight on what it actually means to be in the office – from impromptu water cooler brainstorms, to clear performance objectives, to equality at work, to office culture and identity – how can employers and employees shape a virtual work environment that encourages productivity and wellbeing?

“What we have now is a sense of perspective,” says Angela Dapper, Principal at global architecture firm, Grimshaw, who is joining experts across a host of sectors in reimagining the future of the office beyond the immediate future, “this is a great opportunity to redefine and redesign office spaces, but also office culture. We should be excited about these changes … an overhaul of working practices (particularly unhealthy working practices) is long overdue.”

As new patterns are identified, we caught up with experts – from architects to HR directors – on how they plan to incorporate new working trends into the designing of commercial office spaces in future, and how the pandemic will change the way we work in 2021 and beyond.


The challenge of remote work

While many of us have thrived while working from home, it’s clear that many of us have not. Management have faced challenges in motivating staff remotely – not least having visibility on existing work production. There are also growing concerns that new members of staff may not be benefiting from adequate training, and that important conversations between team members are being easily skipped. 

Plus, as Prof André Spicer, from City University’s Cass Business School warned the BBC recently, social inequalities risk being exacerbated by the set up – parents having to pick up childcare while juggling work; those with smaller spaces clambering to find desk space and potentially at a disadvantage to their counterparts; or younger staff members missing out on crucial mentorship from their more-experienced colleagues.

“It is not working for everyone,” says Dapper. “At the same time, returning to work is not the solution we all want – so the way we will use offices needs to fall somewhere in-between,” she says.


The new meeting hub

“Work space needs to encourage creativity and productivity –  a space to come together,” says Dapper, who is currently looking at creating an office space for around a quarter of Grimshaw’s own staff members; allowing for social distancing while also accommodating the correct proportion of people who would benefit from collaboration and physical presence.

Previously the majority of traditional office space was focussed around individual working environments with a small proportion given to meeting and collaboration space,” she says, “However, we now have a potential majority that prefer to work from home, so the office itself should have a new focus – collaboration,” she says.

Interior Designer, Clare Morton of Studio Morton was in the middle of designing a new East London office for a computer gaming company of 40 staff when COVID hit, and is reworking the space to align with ‘shift rotation’ patterns, hot-desking, and of course, social distancing and safety measures, in response. She stresses the need for offices to cater safely for both essential ‘in-person’ meetings with colleagues and for ‘light’ office tasks – phone call, emails – for the staff that come in to attend them, but believes that ‘deep’ work will still largely remain from home. 

“I feel like the role of the office will be more like that of a members’ club and take in more of a ‘drop in’ form,” she says. “It will become a place where employees can come and go as needed.”

The new members’ club? Offices could take on a the role of a collaborative meeting hub with flexible break-out spaces, such as this Gloucestershire work space by Studio Morton


Focus on flexibility

The name of the game, experts say, is flexibility. They’re working to create spaces that can evolve with the realities of public health as well as with the needs and preferences of their staff. 

“We should be saying goodbye to large homogenous offices and saying hello to flexibility and adaptivity. Space needs to flex to relate to people, teams, projects and tasks,” says Dapper. This may include, she says, “loose-fit offices” that are designed to create more spare space and have less fixed elements, so that they can easily adapt to whatever changes in technology, project approaches or social-distance requirements the future holds.

“We should also say goodbye to our fixed desk space,” she says, including elements such as desk phones and fixed desk heights which will need to be easily adaptable to whoever uses them, “we need to be prepared to share.”

For Morton, creating a space that encourages flexibility means goodbye to acoustic meeting pods and phone booths and hello to more break-out spaces and lounge-type soft seating spaces where you can sit further away from each other and not confined to a traditional face-to-face set up. “Meetings have been de-formalised by working from home, so lounge spaces will provide a happy medium between Zoom calls in PJs and board meetings – the focus will be on the people who have come together and not how they’re seated,” she says.

So will this finally pave the way for a flexible working week?. “If we truly embrace this flexible working culture we should also be questioning the merits of the traditional 5-day working week and looking at outcome-based work,” says Dapper. 

Goodbye to large homogenous offices and hello to collaborative spaces that allow for more flexibility and innovation, such as Plexal, a coworking space in London designed by Grimshaw.


The role of trust

So with the office of 2021 renewing focus on team collaboration, practicing flexibility and aiming to cater for individual needs, what’s the draw card? One of the biggest holdbacks of remote work is trust – managers simply don’t trust their people to work untethered. The traditional ‘bums-on-seats’ approach isn’t holding up, and it’s clear the traditional ways of managing team performance isn’t going to cut it either.

“Employment is a relationship,” says Vikki Skene, HR Director of Galliford Try – speaking last month on our panel on “Working Environments in the New Normal” – who is encouraging her teams to start having open conversations with each other in order to build this trust.  “We’re often too uncomfortable to have open discussions about what we need from our staff and our managers, and that will be the difference between a successful or unsuccessful team dynamic during these times.”

Her team is also building out key resources for their 3,000 employees, from management tool kits available online to daily check-ins. “In the construction industry historically, we’re not great at managing people’s performance, but the new working environment can be an opportunity to facilitate that.” 

For starters, she agrees with Dapper that the focus should shift towards output and delivery on tasks – as opposed to hours worked, for instance – and that companies should aim to empower and enable individuals to deliver these in agreed timescales. 

“It’s important to ensure that people understand the journey they are on and what the purpose of the relevant activity is in contributing to the wider strategy and goal,” says Skene. “Agreeing on team objectives encourage teams to collaborate and rely on each other – individuals generally like to feel needed and if you know you’re contributing to a bigger goal or team effort that can make you more focused on the delivery, so you ‘don’t let the team down’.”


Reinventing office culture

As the dust settled on the crisis, and remote routines were set up, one question emerged – how do we move office culture out of the office? Even if the work place of the future turns into a place where collaborative work is well orchestrated – where people come in for team meetings or other group events – will employees still be able to benefit from that spontaneous office interaction? How can companies show off their identity to new employees and boost productivity and happiness in the workplace?

“As we have been working away from the office for a relatively short time (although it does feel like a very long time) the effect on culture and our sense of identity is an area where we haven’t fully experienced or understood the impact,” says Dapper. “While there are benefits to working from home, we are missing out on the social and cultural elements of working, which are really important for creativity and innovation, and for staff engagement.”

Having prioritised this for her staff members early on, Skene stresses the importance of adding a human element to your staff calendars, and the importance of encouraging lunch breaks and appropriate times to leave on Friday. 

Being authentic is key,” says Skene, “managers need to aim to replicate the office ’bump-ins’ as much as possible with their teams, and show their true selves.”

“We’re also moving our corporate induction online but with shorter sessions, and our CEO produced a trading update video from his home office in which he spoke to our employees to reinforce key messages,” she says.


Technology – blessing or curse?

There’s no denying that technology will be at the heart of team performance, as we work to boost efficiency and productivity – and that goes beyond video conferencing and getting hold of a company halfway across the world sans flight.

“Technology allows us more flexibility, it enables us to not have to physically be present, allowing us more flexibility in where we are based and how and when we work,” says Dapper although notes, as many do, that this flexibility is not necessarily positive: “While helpful in many ways, a number of people are feeling challenged with feeling a sense of always being available.”

What the impact of those disintegrated working boundaries will be only time will tell, but Morton points out it can be used to our advantage, “I do think that wellness technology is going to have a boost too,” she says, “the world has proven that we can work from home, but we’re not seeing the long term effect on our physical and mental health yet – apps are helping us remember to exercise, drink water – even breathe – and are needed more and more to help people stick to a routine and not be driven mad by the imposition of the workplace coming into the home!”


A new priority – wellbeing

A recent report from Nuffield Health for example found that 36% of those surveyed said not being in the workplace with colleagues makes them feel that they must be ‘always on’, and unable to leave their workstations for breaks. Plus, even as we start easing back into the office, we’re hearing more reports of staff experiencing fear or anxiety around the risk of increased exposure to the virus, as well as struggling to make the adjustment back to the workplace after weeks of lockdown. How are management going to tackle this going forward?

Covid and particularly home working has made us as a company be more cognisant of health and wellbeing,” says Dapper “We know the importance of health and wellbeing in the office, but also know the importance of modelling good behaviours.  With staff less visible, we need to make extra efforts to reach out to people. We have made sure we have an open invite every Friday to virtually gather and hear news and office updates – to ensure we are creating an ongoing dialogue.”

And for those of us still struggling to be efficient well working from home? “I’m a big believer in routine and ritual,” says Morton. “If you work in your living room or at the dining table, only log on during work hours – I like to light a scented candle when I’m working as the scent signifies work!” Log out at lunchtime, go for a walk, leave the house or have lunch in a different room and put your papers or laptop out of sight at the end of the day, she adds

The office as we know it is behind us, but in its place – opportunities. The important thing, according to our experts, is unquestionable – to get perspective and take this time to learn about what has been working and what hasn’t, before pivoting into the future. “We were doing a lot of things just because we were doing them,” says Dapper, highlighting the habitual nature of office life of old. It’s now time to look forward to bringing about possible change for the better – offices focused on collaboration; working weeks catered to the modern age; individual needs of staff catered for. Now imagine that.

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