The pandemic has accelerated the evolution towards a more fit for purpose office as a large number of employees no longer want to miss the benefits of working from home (WFH).
While many companies will opt to keep a flexible approach to WFH this will have to carefully consider how the digital and physical offices can remain connected.
Not a one size fits all
The pandemic has forced the creation of office space in households in an unplanned and unstructured way. New technology applications have been tested and adopted. There are indications that the experiment has gone for many.
A number of companies claimed that productivity went up during the period. This may have to do with employees being happier working from home and avoiding a perhaps long commute which improved their work/life balance. However, it may also have to do with the fact that many employees were working longer hours in a WFH setup. Many individuals faced some serious personal challenges with childcare to deal with and/or substandard working conditions. Employees working from home need their own space, a room, connectivity and secure access, and that wasn’t available for some.
Research also suggests that new employees, lower skilled, as well as middle management feel worse in digital working environments. There is the risk that people may feel isolated socially and professionally, disconnected from colleagues and the company itself.
Either way, the involuntary experiment has raised the question of the role of the physical office post pandemic.
Transforming the workplace
Since not everyone is set to return to the office full time, many companies are planning to shrink the floor space and save cost. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a greater shift towards remote working for financial services, with 74% of firms reviewing their current office space requirements, particularly in insurance, finance houses and banking, according to a survey by CBI and PWC (opens a new window).
Most of this review seems to be driven by a desire to redefine or reconfigure use of existing office space (cited by 67% of companies), and/or reducing office space (62%).
While many companies are reviewing their office space requirements, very few are considering abolishing the office altogether. Among arguments for keeping an office are concerns around how WFH affects communication, including brainstorming and problem-solving, knowledge sharing, socialization, camaraderie, and mentoring. In addition, a new approach for performance evaluation and compensation may be needed in a working from home environment. Data security and regulation also present potential challenges.
Arguments for an office also include the need for face-to-face interaction for corporate identity and culture. While this may be true, offices can create both good and bad cultures. The level of trust employees have in the organisation seems to be an important factor. Consequently, corporate culture will play a major role in the design of the office of the future.
Creating the appropriate corporate culture
Collaboration is crucial for innovation and success. Bringing people to work together independently of the physical location will be essential since the office of the future is likely to be a mix of digital and physical space.
In a physically divided workforce, colleagues cannot tap one another on the shoulder to ask questions or get help. A large amount of workplace knowledge is not codified and instead resides “in people’s heads". This can constitute a problem not only for new starters but over time also for long time employees if a physically distant workforce results in the creation of new knowledge silos.
A digital “working handbook” with searchable pages describing processes in the company can be part of the solution if all employees are encouraged to help editing it.
The importance of agility and adaptability of companies has become more evident during the pandemic. To create an agile environment, companies may want to enable the gathering and combining of expertise from different functions. Technology paired with the right mindset to learn from customers, clients, and users may be part of the solution.
Introduce solutions on a small scale and upscale.
Try to align the solutions with the corporate culture.
Include experts from different departments when choosing technology solutions.
Solutions need buy-in from leadership.
Avoid a top down mandate.
Allow freedom to operate and learn.
Information needs to be saved securely but available to everyone as this is crucial to react and adapt. Leadership needs to help create a culture of openness and transparency and avoid that communication processes create new silos. “Ask me anything” opportunities can help to disseminating information and make it accessible to everyone. Openness is inevitable in a digital era and a free flow of information boosts engagement and empowers staff. While some leaders may feel their authority threatened by sharing information, a single source of information in real time helps strengthening connection to staff. Culture is not static but is constantly evolving, requiring regular adjustments, particularly in a WFH environment.
Culture needs to transport a sense of purpose, beliefs and values that explain why the company exists to allow for strong connection building. This can help boost employee engagement, which does impact the bottom line of the company. The initiative needs to start from the top but requires the buy-in from employees.
Improving the digital workspace
There are constantly new applications available on the market. Instead of scheduling a video call when calendars don’t line up, employees may prefer recording an instant video messaging including screen sharing and distribute it among colleagues.
To strengthen cohesion in the workforce, some companies are planning randomized chat interactions, where online group chats are created using artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality tools to pair up remote colleagues. Data on individual communication styles and AI can generate "slackbot buddies".
The opportunities to create a suitable digital workspace are plentiful, but they need to be aligned with culture and tailored to individual needs.
Some technology analysts believe that in a few years’ time, staff will be able to put on a virtual reality (VR) headset and immerse themselves in a virtual office. A VR platform could be used to create a place for distant team members to gather in avatar form. Such solutions may be particularly helpful in a world where business travel has become the exception.
Adapting the physical workspace
Some companies are reconfiguring their open-plan spaces to offer employees a better environment for collaboration and teamwork such as clusters of desks. New starters and trainees may appreciate working initially at the headquarters as the personal interaction helps them better integrating.
Others are creating opportunities for employees to be able to better concentrate on one task, something they had perhaps difficulties doing at home. This can include moveable, soundproofed pods, cafe-style seating with power outlets, high-backed couches, and green plants that allow workers to partially isolate. Alternatively, or in addition, companies may offer employees the option to book decentralised meeting spaces if more convenient than the central office.
While not everyone will want to go to the office every day, it may be useful to get everyone into the office a few days a month to promote bonding and connection between staff. A similar outcome could be achieved through corporate retreats and get-togethers.
Performance evaluation and compensation
Companies struggling to evaluate staff working from home could look for guidance at all-remote companies where workers are evaluated according to the quality of their output, the quality of virtual interactions, and feedback from clients and colleagues. Applications for customer support replies for example ask customers to submit a “happiness score” by rating the quality of the response.
How to set compensation for “virtual” workers may be a more complicated task, particularly if they decide to reside far away from the headquarters. Companies may adjust wages according to where a worker lives, or pay the same wages for the same roles, regardless of location. Taxation issues may also need to be addressed.
The creation of the office of the future will certainly come at a cost, but companies may be able to compensate the perhaps sizeable investments in the digital workspace through savings in real estate, utility, and other overhead costs.