When you get back to your office, here’s what’s going to be different

January 31, 2021, 10:00 AM UTC

Say the word “office,” and what exactly comes to mind?

In 2021, it’s hard to even tell anymore. That’s because in this strange pandemic era, we all have very different experiences of the American workplace. 

Some workers have returned to a central location, some might drop in sometimes, and some haven’t come back at all. But here is what we do know: Whenever you do come back to an office, what you see will not be exactly as you remember it.

“Things are going to be very different,” says Gale Moutrey, VP of workplace innovation for office design firm Steelcase.

“It’s been fascinating to watch this develop over the past year. The immediate reaction was, ‘Everyone can work from home, let’s do this all the time!’ Now the pendulum has swung away from that.

“People really miss going to a place they call their office. This is my 37thyear at Steelcase—and I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much interest in reinventing the workplace.”

So what will this reimagined office look like? It might mean thinning out the crowd: Removing tables and desks, reducing density, and spacing out workstations to comply with virus-related safety protocols.

You might see more collaborative workspaces, with fully-loaded videoconferencing options to link up in-person and work-from-home staffs. You might see more usage of mobile apps, to stagger and facilitate shared issues like parking, or conference-space booking, or even lunch. 

You might see increased use of outdoor space, at least in areas where climates allow, such as Silicon Valley. You might see a more distributed approach to offices—instead of one big central location, there might be a tilt towards multiple smaller workplaces dotted throughout metro areas.

There are also changes you won’t see, such as all the improvements being made behind the walls. Things like air flow and tech capacity may not be visible to the naked eye, but will definitely change your experience of the office.

“The way organizations are responding to this is incredibly agile,” says Mary Tinebra, a transformation leader for workforce consultants Mercer. “This is moving very fast, and we all have to move with it. It’s invigorating to see how clients are looking at the office in provocative ways.”

For example, in one summer survey from Willis Towers Watson, “Reopening the Workplace,” 56% of companies said they had already reconfigured their offices because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Of course this is a fluid situation, and companies are still trying to get a handle on what the reinvented workplace should look like. But here are some changes that might be waiting for you:

Moving away from a single HQ:If the old corporate model was one big central office—a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan, for instance, to which everyone would commute—then the post-COVID workplace model is shifting away from that. Take outdoor gear and apparel retailer REI: It had been building a new headquarters in Bellevue, Wash., since 2016, but the new normal has led them to scrap that plan. 

“We learned through this experience that a more distributed way of work could unlock a ton of potential,” says spokesperson Halley Knigge. “We also found ourselves with the opportunity to reexamine some past assumptions – like the need for a single physical headquarters.” Instead, while workers continue to operate remotely, the company is identifying a handful of smaller “satellite” locations around the Puget Sound area, to handle the need for collaborative work.

Using tech tweaks to ramp up health and safety:In the new normal, issues like office crowds and lines are what you want to avoid. So mortgage giant Freddie Mac has expanded its use of tech tools in its McLean, Va.central office to head that off at the pass. “Freddie Mac deployed sensor technology and contactless procedures to encourage social distancing and keep employees safer as volunteers started returning to the office,” says Charlotte Catalfo, the firm’s SVP of enterprise operations.

Through a mobile app, staffers can check what’s for lunch, order, and pay, and schedule pickup (with staggered arrival times) from their desks. They’re deploying tech in other ways as well, like biometric access controls to improve security, and wearing smart sensors that records proximity to colleagues, to help perform contact tracing in the event of positive Covid-19 tests.  

Reducing density:When coming into the workplace for the first time in a while, what might be most apparent—and where companies have been able to take immediate action—is the change in density. Instead of endless cubicles crowded together, a process of subtraction has likely removed desks, chairs and tables to become what real estate giant Cushman & Wakefield terms the “six-foot office”.

That’s what customer relationship management firm Salesforce has been doing in its operations across Asia, where recovery from the crisis is more advanced. Typical workfloors have been redesigned to support only 40-50% of previous capacity. Along with that comes related issues like managed arrival times, changed workshifts, and even monitored elevator usage.

“We’ve been implementing new protocols including updated space capacities to maintain physical distancing, plexiglass dividers between desks, and more,” says Michele Schneider, Salesforce’s senior vice president of global workplace services.

Deploying outdoor space:The risk of indoor virus transmission is almost 20 times higher than outside. So in addition to state-of-the-art HVAC improvements within the office, here’s an elegant solution many companies are turning to: Moving workspace outside. 

That’s obviously not possible in all cities and all climates. But where it is possible, making better use of the great outdoors makes perfect sense. That’s why shared workspace firm WeWork has been rolling out and improving outdoor spaces, now offered in 150 of its 700 total locations – including two new ones opened over the course of the crisis, “Lantana” in Santa Monica and “La Brea” in Los Angeles. 

Balconies and rooftops have become critical workspaces, increasingly rented by non-members on a pay-as-you-go format, according to a WeWork spokesperson. Bringing work outside typically involves boosting power capability and charging stations, designing gathering areas for collaborative projects, and supplying mobile equipment like outdoor projectors and rolling whiteboards.

Hyper-focus on hygiene:Historically, offices may not have been known for meticulous hygiene—but all that has changed now. Expect an almost hospital-like feel, with elements like temperature checks becoming ubiquitous.

At Palo Alto Networks in Santa Clara, Calif., they are moving towards a completely “touchless” environment to reduce potential transmission. That means everything from espresso machines that scan QR codes instead of requiring button-pressing, to motion-activated faucets, to hands-free sanitizing.

Meanwhile they are treating incoming mail with UV disinfecting sanitizing wands, and have a stable of portable “rapid recovery” air purifiers that can be called on at will.

“Providing the safest work environment is table stakes,” says Liane Hornsey, the company’s chief people officer. “We’ve made many improvements, from creating a touchless environment in common areas to implementing new technologies and equipment that boost air quality. We are continuing to reimagine our facilities, as we prepare for an office that will once again bring us all together.” 

Perhaps most of all, the watchword of the post-COVID workplace will be flexibility. In recent decades, the design pendulum has swung all the way from enclosed offices, to completely open floor plans, neither of which was truly ideal. Now, companies are recognizing the advantages of a Transformer-like approach: Having the ability to create many different kinds of working arrangements, in the same space, at will.

“Workspaces are becoming multipurpose and multi-modal,” predicts Steelcase’s Moutrey. “Is it a café, is it a team meeting space, is it a social space? Yes—it’s all of those things.”

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