Planning for the Future Workplace and a Distributed Workforce
September 10, 2020 | By José Luis Sanchez-Concha, Francesca Poma
Editor's note: This post is part of our ongoing exploration of how design is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lessons learned from the recent collective work-from-home experiment will play a critical role in guiding the journey back to the workplace across the globe. Because of the health crisis, companies are strategically rethinking everything about the office as we once knew it — from the physical space to the protocols, people, and organizational culture that define it.
As we plan for this new normal, workplace resilience will require greater organizational intelligence, multidisciplinary planning, effective change management, and strategic design.
The benefits of working remotely and/or having a more distributed workforce have been known for a while. Improved life/work balance, greater autonomy, reduced commuter traffic and associated CO2 emissions, and a reduced office footprint are a few of those perks.
That said, we now know that the overall effectiveness of virtual collaboration relies on a critical factor: human connection. Our recent work-from-home experiment has shown how important virtual collaboration platforms and management tools can be. But nothing can replace face-to-face time with colleagues. Those interactions build social capital and personal connections that can keep you connected outside of the office.
When we transitioned to working from our homes during the lockdown, we entered a new reality with pre-existing social connections among colleagues. Data from the 2020 Gensler U.S. Work from Home Survey reinforces that the primary reason people want to come back to the office is to interact with other people. So, how can the future workplace balance the benefits of remote work and virtual collaboration with the positive, community-based elements of the office?
As designers, we see the role of the office as the catalyst for engagement, inspiration, and human connection, a platform for meetings inspired by hospitality, collaboration, and technology that fosters relationships and exchanges. Before the pandemic, awareness was growing around the concept of the hybrid workplace model which promotes collaboration, advanced technology, unassigned seating, and activity-based design, and offers a comfortable atmosphere driven by elements of hospitality. However, in the past, this model was limited by spatial conditions that required designing for a certain capacity, and this, combined with a focus on space efficiency, resulted in increased densities. We have been reducing the amount of space per person/desk consistently over the past 30 years — but the global health crisis is rapidly changing this trend.
Traditional workplace planning is based on capacity and tends to maximize the number of workstations for individual focus work. Collaborative workspaces, community amenities, and other support areas are detached from the number of desks. If we refocus our workplaces to create experience-centric environments we also need to change how we think of the workplace and see it instead as a crucial part of a holistic support system for a distributed workforce. Rather than calculating space based on the number of desks, since the desk is no longer the driving factor for the whole program, we need a different, more granular approach to office planning. Focusing on the number of seats provided will help us plan for a more variate set of spaces to support the workforce’s evolving needs. This approach addresses both supply and demand for spaces and includes areas for focused work and collaborative workspaces.
As the office becomes more of a collaboration hub, planning will evolve from a space-by-desk basis in order to account for the higher ratio of collaboration-driven work that’s expected to bring people back into the office. Since this requires incorporating generous circulation space and support spaces, it means that space per seat will likely be 15 to 30% lower compared to previous workplace planning needs.
The ultimate balance in ratios will depend on an office’s existing space efficiency and the rate of adoption of remote working. Preliminary results suggest this approach leads to a moderate reduction in space, but more importantly, a reduction in density — which translates to more room (30-35%) per person and a better-quality workspace.New needs will drive new space types in the office.
By putting the employee experience first, we can create new space types within the workplace in order to transform the office into a safe, more community-oriented workplace. To do this, we must think beyond the workstation and create places where we can foster culture, innovation, mentorship, and organic interactions.
With an increased focus on wellbeing and safety, designers will also need to create a flexible separation between private and public spaces that can be opened or closed, depending on the risk scenario. Shared public spaces can act as co-working spaces with a variety of parts – like client meeting rooms, multipurpose rooms, work-cafes, one-to-one meeting spaces, and focus pods.
Since the pandemic has changed how we work together, the hybrid office can better connect teams in person by offering more project rooms for mid- and long-term assignments. These spaces would be adaptable to allow different team sizes to book a project room for a couple of weeks to a couple of months and offer a variety of configurations to meet the task at hand.
In working from home, we’ve been repurposing our dining room tables and seating to meet our basic working needs, but the tailored, hospitality-driven experience offered in the physical office is an important motivating factor in welcoming employees back and making them feel comfortable.
While it’s critical to reconnect colleagues by providing collaboration hubs with flexible furniture for adaptable scenarios, heads-down spaces for “in-between” meeting spaces will also be important. A portion of the more traditional workstation areas will still exist in the hybrid workplace — but with a twist as we see smaller “neighborhoods,” complete with flexible workstations and spaces for easy access to virtual collaboration tools.
Remote working has exposed disparities in how homelife demands and living situations can impact an employee’s ability to focus and be productive outside of the workplace. The physical office must still prioritize places for hyper-focused activities such as library spaces, where people can sit together and be free from interruptions, even by phone calls.
Physical changes to de-densify and reconfigure the workplace will directly impact circulation and changes will need to be considered in the programming phase. If we calculated 30% of the total area for circulation, we might want to consider increasing to 35 to 40%. Corridors will also become multi-functional and can double as collaboration spaces. Should a high-risk situation arise, collaboration in corridors would be deactivated to create room for greater social distancing.
Designers will also need to rethink large, communal cafeterias to create smaller community-based kitchens throughout the office that will offer more comfortable and safer places for people to gather and eat.
The emerging hybrid workplace model raises important questions and concerns including developers who feel threatened by a potential drop in demand for corporate office real estate and tenants who recognize the financial opportunity to optimize their spaces. It is not about downsizing, but rather, it’s about rightsizing the workplace to meet new needs and functions as an increasingly community-centric hub of connectivity. To enter a hybrid reality, our approach towards adapting the workplace should not focus on maximum occupancy planning, but instead, on understanding and valuing preference, experience, and connection to inspire people as they come back together.
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