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Reimagining the Post-Pandemic Office Experience

publishedabout 1 year ago
5 min read

With nearly 80% of companies expected to adopt a hybrid work model after the pandemic, it’s clear that what we consider a “normal” workplace experience is likely to look very different in the years ahead. I’ve previously discussed key management considerations for a hybrid workforce, but hybrid also has important implications for the office experience. From design and architectural changes to new amenities and usage strategies, there are myriad ways the built environment can be optimized for this new work model.

As companies begin their back-to-work transition, many are already rethinking their office design to better accommodate evolving employee expectations and the blend of remote and office workers. They’re also focused on maintaining health and safety standards that will help prevent a resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall. While it’s still early in this transition for many organizations, let’s examine some of the trends that are emerging in this hybrid- and safety-focused landscape, and how some employers are paving the way forward with innovative solutions and adaptations.

Key elements of the hybrid office

The ability to socialize and interact with colleagues is an essential aspect of our day-to-day work lives that many people have missed during the pandemic. Post-COVID, most experts agree that the office will become less focused on individual tasks, which employees will be more likely to work on at home, and more centered around spaces that promote collaboration and connection. A recent JLL survey supports this, finding that nearly half of employees say they hope their office will prioritize socialization spaces, such as coffee areas, lounges or terraces.

Creating a workplace that clearly communicates company culture will also be key within the hybrid model. As one design expert put it, “the new post-COVID workplace can transform itself into an experiential meeting place that helps employees, recruits, and guests understand a company’s culture more deeply and uniquely.” Architectural and design elements will be at the core of this transformation, especially those that convey company values. For example, United Therapeutics uses a combination of interfaces, displays, and interactivity to broadcast messaging that aligns with the company’s sustainability mission.

Businesses will also increasingly leverage the office to facilitate specific events or interactions that support culture. For example, global design consultancy frog uses its “studios” for rituals ranging from Wellness Wednesdays, to afternoon coffee time and occasional happy hours. With employees spending a limited amount of time in the office, it will be critical that companies reinforce the importance of creating social ties—and offering these types of events are a way to clearly demonstrate that employees have permission to socialize during the workday.

Having flexible group spaces will also be important in the hybrid workplace, since the number and type of employees in the office is likely to fluctuate each day. To address this need, Google is designing “Team Pods” that start off as a blank canvas. Chairs, desks, whiteboards and storage units on casters can be wheeled into various arrangements, and in some cases rearranged in a matter of hours. However, for most companies, simply offering reconfigurable shared spaces (i.e., with moveable or changeable furniture) will be a step in the right direction.

That’s not to say that the post-COVID office will only include group spaces. In fact, nearly half (44%) of employees say that spaces dedicated to focus work, like concentration pods or phone booths, would boost their in-office experience. These spaces will be especially important for workers whose homes are not well-suited for focus work, for example parents or those in small apartments. Having a quiet place to work at the office may also be appealing to employees who simply want a change of pace after working from home for so long during the pandemic.

Just like in group spaces, a high level of adjustability will also be sought out in these individual work areas. At Google, where most hybrid workers no longer require a permanent desk, employees can use a “hot desk” that adjusts to their personal preferences with a swipe of a work badge. It calibrates the height and tilt of the monitor, brings up family photos on a display, and even adjusts the nearby temperature. The company is also offering an inflatable balloon wall that will allow employees to quickly create a more private environment.

While many workplace innovations are designed to benefit those who go into the office, a few have remote workers in mind. In Google’s new meeting room setup, called Campfire, in-person attendees sit in a circle interspersed with large vertical displays. The displays show the faces of people dialing in by videoconference so virtual participants are on the same footing as those physically present. It’s an innovative concept that could help allay some of the concerns remote workers have about feeling equally included and visible as their in-office peers.

A continued focus on health and safety

Although nearly half of Americans have now received at least one dose of the vaccine, health and safety will remain paramount in the post-COVID office environment. Beyond increased cleaning efforts and better ventilation, companies are also implementing design and usage strategies aimed at ensuring compliance with physical distancing protocols. These include removing tables and desks, spacing out workstations, and requiring staff to book desks or offices in advance to avoid overcrowding.

Not surprisingly, technology will have a key role to play in promoting employee safety. For example, IoT devices and networks can monitor building occupancy and help businesses reorganize spaces to optimize occupant density. These devices can also play a significant role in preventing the spread of COVID-19. At mortgage company Freddie Mac, employees are wearing smart sensors that record proximity to colleagues, to help perform contact tracing in the event of positive COVID-19 tests.

Touchless fixtures and processes will also become increasingly prevalent, in everything from elevators and conference call equipment to food ordering and pick-up. Palo Alto Networks, for example, is moving towards a completely “touchless” environment to reduce potential transmission. That includes everything from espresso machines that scan QR codes, to motion-activated faucets, to hands-free sanitizing.

In locations where the weather is favorable, some businesses are expanding their offices into the outdoors to provide for safer working environments. This can be as simple as redesigning the cafeteria to open out to terrace dining, or if you’re a company like Google, it may involve more extensive changes like building outdoor work areas from the ground up. At its Silicon Valley headquarters, the company has converted a parking lot and lawn area into “Camp Charleston”—a fenced-in mix of grass and wooden deck flooring about the size of four tennis courts with Wi-Fi throughout.

Beyond safety measures, the definition of a “healthy workplace” will take on a much broader meaning after COVID-19. Workers returning to the office will have new expectations for how the workplace should elevate their holistic well-being, especially their mental wellness. Employees will look for spaces for rest or respite (think: nap pods), as well as mood-boosting biophilic design elements that incorporate plants, natural light and materials. In fact, 44% of office workers say that spaces connected with nature, such as a terrace or garden, are a top priority that would improve their return-to-work experience.

Tomorrow’s workplaces will support new priorities

As employees begin their transition back to the office, the environments they work in will take on new importance and meaning. Health and safety will be top of mind for everyone, while those who adopt a hybrid workstyle will have unique expectations for how their workplace should support them. Some companies are already adapting their workplace to better meet the needs of returning employees, while others may be in the earlier stages of planning. No matter the approach, companies who want to succeed in the post-COVID era will have to rethink and most likely redesign their office environments to ensure they truly support their people and their business.