The New Workplace: A Reimagined Future

  • Date 08.23.2020

  • Author Lauren Coughlin

  • Contributors Linda DiEgidio, Anthony Matsell, Jackie Reiley, Jaime Hammond, Kathy Marsh & Jessica Badolato

When one can work anywhere, what would make the office the choice place?

We hosted a round table with our workplace strategy and design experts to try to find out. The conversation progressed from reviewing our current state – primarily what we’ve gained (and lost) by working from home – and ended with a look ahead to the possibilities of a massive workplace transformation.

First, we took a look at the good and the not-so-good of our current WFH state.

There is no new norm. Not yet, anyway. At first, the new norm was working from home – balancing kids, parents, bosses, and trying to find our feet. Now we’ve entered a very gray area where “normal” varies wildly from individual to individual. Some of us have been called back to the office full-time as the first wave of employees to return while others have been directed to work from home indefinitely while their office real estate needs are reevaluated. The disparity is confusing and is leading to a great deal of anxiety.

Flexibility rocks. Productivity is up, interruptions are down. Almost 75% of Americans say they are very successful in a WFH model and, somewhat surprisingly, feel they have all the tools and resources required to perform.** Many of us are experiencing complete ownership of our days and, because of this, are more focused, efficient, and happily engaged with our work. Office-driven stressors are down – no more ‘Sunday Scaries’ or fears of traffic-induced lateness. We can listen in on a call and fold the laundry, start dinner before wrapping up emails, or head out for a walk and pick up our laptop again later. Many are loving the ability to focus on personal wellbeing and have, for the first time, found true evening downtime.

Virtual Collaboration isn’t so bad, but we’re missing the groove of in person comms. For now, most prefer communication virtually rather than in-person while wearing a mask. Yes, body language is more effective in person, but reading faces and connecting is not – nor is talking. We’re also getting a lot better at this virtual thing; many younger employees are loving that their companies are embracing new technologies. Yet, virtual collaboration can never fully replicate the personal connection of sharing a room – the visual triggers that lead to the exchange of critical information, organic communication among complex teams, conveying intricate project details, innovation, and mentorship. Just over 60% report that they are satisfied with remote collaboration compared to 90% satisfaction when collaboration occurs in the office.** Additionally, reduced social interactions are affecting the friendships that make for tighter teamwork. The overriding theme is: fully virtual can work but it’s not the same. And, where it’s different it’s also less successful.

WFH is…gasp…more productive. Slack and Teams chatter is up, but it’s easier to take a beat before responding to a notification than it is to ignore the shadow of a teammate while trying to wrap up a thought. Even with these mildly slower responses, we’re still getting answers faster. Less travel to offsite meetings – and less meetings generally – leaves us more readily available. 70% of managers are reporting that team performance is the same or better while at home.** Additionally, the distributed team has led to forced organization and streamlined processes. Virtual teams need to be sure all information is readily available by using more cloud-based sharing, tracking forms, and verbal downloads ultimately reducing misunderstandings that lead to wasted efforts.

Interrupting is the new microwaved fish for lunch. We came from a world of constant “Hey, is now an ok time?”…“Can we chat real quick – it’ll only take five minutes.” Now, we can’t see what a person is into – if they’re on a call, knee deep in accounting reports, or on a walk. So, we’re checking in less and less and scheduling more and more.

Do we need a workplace? Yes! But there is certainly no singular solution. For innovation, rapid decision making, mentorship, team alignment, and culture, the workplace is the strongest tool an organization has. Over 80% of North Americans think the office is here to stay.** So, what can the reimagined workplace do to match or better the gains of individual productivity, control, and ownership – the advantages of WFH? During our round table, the resounding answer: flexibility! Flexibility in the physical space and in the corporate mindset. If we focus so well at home, yet long for face-to-face collaboration, the spaces that will bring us in are, of course, those that will bring us together. The future workplace will be one of choice. Primary spaces will be adaptable and experiential collaboration zones with less focus on personally owned, individual seats. Occupancy studies have shown that traditional desks are only used on average 50-60% of the time.* We anticipate a further reduction in that percentage post-pandemic. However, flexibility in the workplace means nothing if the culture doesn’t support it. Organizations will need to reset and adjust perspectives to ensure an environment that supports individual flexibility and promotes respect for varied lifestyles. For employees to want to come back, the return shouldn’t be a rigid demand. Freedom of personal preference brings engagement. A workplace that allows for holistic flexibility will be the choice place.

Our team recognizes the great opportunity to reinvent the workplace as we know it. What might the future hold? Here are some of our predictions:

Workplace as a support hub

The workplace becomes the mixed-use development of business. It’s a place to support individuals and teams in their quest to perform, produce, learn, and service.

Who is this model for? This model is about enablement and would best support businesses that want to reduce hierarchical complexities allowing autonomy in their operations.

How would this model look? We imagine a central plaza with surrounding zones all defined by a team’s distinct needs. The zones are like open store fronts with users returning to the central hub before moving on to another. Picture ZONE 1: An area for production – printing, collation, assembly, building. It would include an area to source needed devices and parts and to troubleshoot technology issues. This is the ‘shop’ that ensures workers are operating with efficiency. ZONE 2: Where groups come together for collaboration and mentorship. This is also a place to get things done – to make decisions within complex teams, which is exceptionally challenging while apart. What supports a team will vary widely from biz to biz, but these areas could be a series of work rooms, open living room-like conversation zones, pin-up and critique spaces, or a balance of each. ZONE 3: An area for communication and professional development which supports training, hosting externally led education, company-wide meetings, and other internal comms. ZONE 4: Houses external meetings and events. The nature of this model – supporting individual and team operations – may require a separate and defined space for visitors and socialization so as not to be disruptive. ZONE 5: Lastly, we envisioned a zone for on-demand childcare. A model built on the philosophy of support and self-sufficiency calls for a place to bring kids when needed while working on site. Why do we come to work in this model? Because this is a workplace that supports, cultivates, and provides.

Workplace as an innovation center

The workspace becomes a place for idea generation and invention.

Who is this model for? This model is for organizations who lead their industry, those that prize continually reinventing and challenging processes, ideas, products, and solutions.

How would this model look? Innovation centers are built with the purpose of supercharging very specific activities – iteration, analytics, brainstorming, team building, training. Ideas are exchanged, decisions are made, processes and drafts are displayed. There is a buzz of inspiration and a constant spark of creativity. Individual spaces do live here, but they are ancillary and used between the collaborative process to prep and decompress. Like the collaborative spaces, they are shared. In this model, no spaces are individually owned which promotes interaction and – innovation. Here, we may also see less square footage dedicated to spaces supporting social interactions.** The need for a time out, some down time, or a non-work-related laugh is critical, however, so social spaces will still be present. But they will not be combined with a mash up of heads down, collaboration, and all-hands – a multipurpose space that attempts to accommodate a little bit of everything. Lunchrooms, which have taken on this challenge in the past, underperform on the regular. Purposeful, productive spaces will be the new focus in this model. It’s ok to come to work to…work. Likewise, it’s ok to fully separate work time from time off.

Workplace as a community resource

The workplace becomes the multipurpose hotel lobby.

Who is this model for? This model is for businesses operating with purpose and who desire to share that purpose, and their knowledge, both internally and externally.

How would this model look? Recently, offices have been designed to incorporate luxury amenities infused with technology, ambiance, and culture. Highly insular in nature, we now have thousands of great spaces that are only accessible to few. What if we rethink this idea of sheltered spaces and, instead, open them to the community? They could be used for hosting events, external training, or sharing resources and real estate with non-profits. We envisioned this model as primarily open with intimate and comfortable living room zones (with technology, of course) for both internal and external visitors – working alone, together – and to converse and share, connecting diverse perspectives and expertise. Surrounding this open area would be spaces for private meetings, workshops, and round tables. Production areas would be a requirement, but amenities could be foregone. The door swings in both directions. Not only does this model open doors to the community, it also gets individuals and teams out – making it especially successful in urban environments. With so many local businesses struggling to stay on their feet, shopping, dining at, and supporting the local community is now critical. This is a workplace for thinking, promoting diversity and inclusion, and breaking down the barriers of the insular, exclusive business model.

We are excited by each of these models and the many others that we discussed. While the future is still somewhat unknown, our group was unanimous in this – the future workplace is necessary, it is bright, and when compared to the average workplace of today – it is unrecognizable!


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