The future of office space in a remote work world

Covid-19 accelerated the rise of remote work to maximum speed. Now that people can work from anywhere and be productive, what will the shared office of the future look like?

ARTICLE | 6m read
November 6, 2020

Even when states began to reopen from the coronavirus pandemic in May, nearly 70 percent of U.S. employees were still working remotely. In addition, Gallup reports that only one in four want to return to shared offices once restrictions are lifted. When the majority imagine the office of the future, they now picture a flexible workspace that can be physically located anywhere. And with the right technology, a remote workforce can share a great work experience and being just as productive as before.

But the physical office will not become irrelevant. There is too much history and investment there, and the role of the office in the war for talent cannot be ignored. The office of the future will succeed or fail based on whether it provides the flexibility and in-person collaboration that future office workers demand. By examining the historical importance of physical office space in employee engagement, we can better imagine the future of office space in a remote work world.

How the office of the future evolved to win the war for talent

The design of physical office spaces was never by accident. As the recent NYT video A Brief History of Work shows, employers designed their evolving workspaces to prioritize different values. Factory floors with identical workspaces made it easier to increase efficiency. Individual action offices helped office workers focus creatively. And open office plans made collaboration and teamwork their top priority.

BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM HAD BEEN THAT OFFICES WERE CRITICAL TO PRODUCTIVITY, CULTURE, AND WINNING THE WAR FOR TALENT.

What unifies office designs over the decades is creating a space where employees can do their best work—and where they want to work. Top companies leaned on their office space as a recruitment tool, offering elaborate exercise facilities, dining options, and other in-house perks that attracted the most talented employees. But today, with remote work accelerating and companies adapting to social distancing, what’s the role of the physical office in recruiting, retaining, and engaging the best talent?

Designing the future of the workspace toward flexibility

As we rethink the future of the workplace, we must design toward flexible work that centers employee choice. Accept that many employees will choose to work remotely, but give them a reason to reenter a shared workspace. As Andrew Griggs, senior partner at Kreston Reeves says, “What is the purpose of an office? We need to make ourselves an attractive place for people to want to come to. They’re not going to come to an office just because there’s a computer there.” Though there is no one-size-fits-all solution, you can orient your office toward what’s best for your talent and how their roles can evolve.

To create a shared office that best engages your talent, start by asking employees what they want in a workplace. In the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, they might request more open air meeting spaces and rooms designed for safe in-person collaboration. It’s also important to adopt workplace technology that supports the evolving roles of your employees. For example, as employees become managers, they will benefit from digital collaboration tools like virtual whiteboards and conference rooms with multiple cameras. This technology makes it easier for managers to engage both remote workers and in-house employees as they work creatively together.

Focus on shared activities that work best in person

To make the best use of your physical office, pivot toward the kinds of activities that cannot easily happen remotely. These interactions include:

  • Group training sessions will usually be more successful if employees are in the same room, especially if you’re rolling out new technology that requires multiple workers to collaborate on the new platform.
  • New employee orientation should also be in-person when possible, since a crucial element is building a sense of shared responsibility and community among all new hires.
  • Mentoring employees and developing their talent is an emotional and empathetic job that will always benefit from in-person interactions.

In all in-person activities, technology will play a central role in enabling employees to return to the office safely. Contactless temperature scanners are already in use by Amazon to help prevent possibly ill employees from entering shared offices. It’s also likely the office of the future will have as few shared surfaces as possible. We could adopt voice-activated doors, elevators, and kitchen appliances to reduce the number of buttons everyone needs to touch—and AI-powered cleaning robots may come in after hours to sanitize common areas.

The future of the office is a smarter shared workspace

We can see the future of the office in countries where the coronavirus is under control. In Germany, 74 percent of office workers currently commute to a shared workplace—but only 50 percent do so five days a week. This suggests a more flexible approach to office space is already working to empower employees. By providing the right technology and flexibility to your workers, you can create an office of the future that successfully bridges remote work and a smarter approach to shared workspaces.

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