Home-working practices people have adopted over the past few years have optimised the ability to work anywhere. In many ways, people have created their own ‘best place to work’. Virtual working has the advantage of flexibility for employees. A survey by PwC found that the highest benefit employees rated in relation to working remotely was saving money on travel, followed by better work-life balance, more time with friends and family, a reduction in stress and burnout, and, key for employers, the belief that they performed better than they could at the office.
If employers want people back in the office, thinking has to change. Core metrics around occupancy and directives for people to be ‘in-person’ are no longer relevant – employers need to earn the commute. And moreover, they should not want people in the office if it means a reduction in both output and employee satisfaction. Instead, it’s time to rethink the role of the office. In a hybrid working environment, the office will no longer be the place where ‘all work’ is done, instead it will be a place for specific purposes such as collaborating and socialising with teams and a pace with more advanced technology than is available at home.
Here are five ways to reimagine the purpose of the office.
1. Start with screen time
If a larger screen allows an employee to be more productive for specific tasks, there may be one or two days per week when they will want to plug into a better screen – or multiple better screens – than they are likely to have at home.
These new spaces will have to be more private than the typical office cubicle or open-plan office, however, as people will still need to be on video calls – there’s no going back to 100 percent face-to-face, that genie is out of the bottle. So to add value for employees, who could work from home, these workstations will need to be better at video calls also, with multiple screens, good lighting, professional backgrounds, and noise-dampening features. That way employees when employees have important virtual presentations, or need distraction-free concentration, the office will be a welcomed alternative to the kitchen table.
The in-office video meeting experience needs to enable collaboration and connection. Remote meeting rooms, whether connecting people from home or organisational branches on the other side of the country or world, need to be merged with those in the office to create physical/digital hybrid spaces. Clunky A/V configurations should be updated to suit the work being done and enhanced with tools that achieve it.
2. Space to collaborate
Given that many will be coming into the office to collaborate, something they cannot do in their home, simple desk cubicles won’t really fit the bill. The office environment should therefore be optimised for collaborative work in different ways. Things to include could be moveable whiteboards, physical materials such as paper, pens post-its, large displays, moveable workshop tables – essentially, a more ‘hackable’ or customisable space
Using large screens that everyone can see, employees can jointly work on spreadsheets, documents and slides in person. Some online collaborative tools, designed to allow individuals to access from anywhere can be put to even better effect in the same physical room. Such scenarios can lead to better work and understanding as the collaboration and conversation both happen live, in-person, and in the flow of work, without the drain of another video call.
3. Tools that can’t be found at home
In the last ten years there have been huge advancements in high-end and emerging technologies. People are curious, but of course cannot afford to own them all. 3D printers, laser cutters, vacuum forming machines, electronic components, high-end camera gear, higher-end computers with the ability to quickly manipulate video files, VR environments, digital twins, drones and many other tech tools are a valuable way to innovate – and something employees would be likely to come to a physical space to access.
It could therefore be valuable to provide stations where people can not only learn to use these tools, but can also start incorporating them into the work they do every day. Additionally, employers could bring in experts to collaborate with staff in the learning and delivery of final products – technology that aids group creation and learning, not just consumption and collaboration.
4. Open a portal to the future
Focusing on areas like the metaverse, virtual and augmented reality, requires technologies such as high-end green screen rooms, props, equipment, and critically, space to move. This kind of equipment also changes regularly and often needs the latest version in order to make the kind of progress required to stay ahead of competitors.
While cutting-edge future ideas are by nature ‘techy’, it may also be necessary to quickly mockup and test ideas with low-fidelity materials like foam, cardstock, tape and markers, or testing emerging technologies, these materials are often not available in a work from home setup.
Providing these setups allows organisations to curate the future, setting up immersive spaces to work on environments relevant for future customers scenarios (eg. virtual shopfronts, offices, event spaces etc).
5. A place of convenience
Thought also has to go into office locations. During the COVID-19 pandemic, experts proclaimed the death of central business districts as occupancy fell, commutes stopped and often, people moved to more regional areas, able a to work and shop online from almost anywhere
So far, the end of the city has not come to fruition, but it is clear that people’s relationship with them has changed. Like the office, central business districts will go through a period of transition to entice people back, including by enabling smart city technology and urban planning, adding more green spaces, increasing social and cultural connection, entertainment, dining – as well as providing efficient and easy access. For offices, therefore, being situated where these amenities are will give employees even further value for their effort to come into the office will create a complete work-life experience.
Central business districts, even with the potential of decreased occupancy needs, are still a place of innovation – a melting pot and exchange of ideas and people. These spaces can both inspire and expand the thinking of employees beyond the confines of their home office.
A change in practice
Rethinking the value of the office has to look beyond its traditional setup. For employees to get value from being ‘in person,’ and organisation’s to get the value of that way of work, there must be more provided, but it requires a human-first, experience-focused shift in mindset.
It goes without saying of course, that no single employee’s circumstances or desires are the same – some will want or need to work full time from the office, some will prefer a couple of days a week, some less frequently. With lived experience of working from home, however, people understand the benefits that such an arrangement brings to them personally – and they know that the work can still get done.
Far from making the office obsolete, a move to hybrid models of work means that the office becomes more important, not less. People still want the connection and collaboration with colleagues that they used to get in the office, and they still need, at different times, access to better technology, places to concentrate and reflect. The office therefore needs to be not an alternative work space to home, but an extension of it.