In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, every aspect of our lives has been disrupted and workplaces haven’t been spared either.
While previously, design and industry experts contemplated the merits of open offices, co-working spaces, team-based efficiency, and artificial intelligence, the post-pandemic era seems to be moving towards a reversal of those very trends.
The focus, now, is on reversing densification. In light of that, self-employment is on the rise while co-working spaces have seen a clear decline in demand. Working from home has opened up options that many wouldn’t have considered before. But as the fear of contagion spreads through the world, office design and workplace dynamics are likely to undergo a definitive transformation.
- Plausible Impacts of Changing Workplace Dynamics
- Workplace Dynamics and Office Design Post-COVID-19
- Accounting for external factors
- Determine individual returns and consider re-grouping
- Policies, protocols, and people
- De-densify and leverage flexible options
- Building preparedness
- Bathroom and Pantry Facilities
- Technology for UX and holistic well-being
- Consider contact-tracing strategies
- Maintain transparency
- Leverage teleworking
Plausible Impacts of Changing Workplace Dynamics
Significant reduction in population densities at workplaces has considerable social, financial, and psychological implications. An area that, experts feel, is under particular duress is real estate, as a mass exodus could lead to recession. Also, remote working has already affected the mental health of employees across sectors.
Loss of community feeling and the resultant alienation are impacts that cannot be ignored. Adding to it is the lack of resources and tools that many workers may face while working from home. Another factor that is often overlooked is a distracting work environment. For those with families, focusing on the task at hand can be difficult with everyone under the same roof.
With such consequences in mind, a return to the workplace is inevitable, but one that will possibly change beyond recognition. The key area of concern in offices of the future, therefore, will be how to balance conflicting criteria to ensure optimum efficiency.
Key Areas of Change
The foundations of any workplace are technology, human resources, and policy. It is only when all three work in tandem that any significant change can be implemented. Therefore, in redesigning the workplace post-COVID-19, a people-centric approach would be the most sensible and practical one.
The three main aspects to be focused on are:
Optimizing the Virtual Experience
By and large, at present, the world is working from home. Once self-isolation and quarantine isn’t needed, it is important to harness the present practice by not just delivering quality work, but also remotely maintaining one’s engagement with the community, culture, and services. A holistic investment can go a long way in the times to come.
Considerations for a Return
For any return-to-work strategy to be effective, well-being, collaboration, and performance must be at the heart of all policies. Employees must be surveyed in order to identify primary functions and relationships that are likely to take precedence over others, based on their need for a physical working space. This, in turn, will influence the planning and involve the participation of the IT, HR, and FM sectors.
What’s of the essence here, is collaboration.
Consider Remote Working Nonetheless
With the pandemic having altered the work landscape for better or worse, it would only be prudent to consider the option of working from home as a feasible one. Teleworking can be an excellent agent of transformation for any organization as it comes with a number of benefits. Beyond that, it is also an example of flexibility and accommodation on part of the company.
A simple and effective way to sustain remote working is to optimize the benefits of the practice. In return, it would allow employers to hire the best talent from every corner of the globe, in the absence of geographical barriers, which is a lucrative long-term advantage.
Workplace Dynamics and Office Design Post-COVID-19
Outlined below are some emerging trends that could be incorporated into the transformed office experience of the post-pandemic era. Take a look.
Accounting for external factors
If there’s one thing to be learned from the current scenario, it is that unpredictability is the only stable presence in our lives. Therefore, it would be wise to account for factors that are beyond individual influence while reimagining the workspace. These include transportation, childcare facilities, or caregiving duties that may come in the way of an employee’s performance or availability in the office.
The onus, then, falls on the employer to take into account such realities and provide for flexible working options. An organization’s expectations may very well be adjusted to that of the employee’s without compromising on the quality or quantity of its output. To that end, establishing clear and effective lines of communication is a must.
Determine individual returns and consider re-grouping
In essence, a workplace facilitates teamwork that is supported by effective management and collaboration. To optimize such an experience in the post-pandemic world, regrouping may be a feasible option in order to ensure that an effective mode of working is established.
The global crisis has made one thing clear – it is not necessary for everyone to be present in the office at all times. The same procedure may be followed by proper planning and with policies in place.
In all likelihood, social distancing will continue to be the order of the day. To that end, workplace surveys and research can go a long way in determining the ideal method of such restructuring with the needs of each sector in mind.
However, while implementing social distancing and regrouping, it is important to bear in mind the correlations and collaborative relationships shared by the various groups of people. Without that, the exercise may fail and put a stop to the workflow within the organization. The right HR representative, diversity of roles, and desk allocations are just some of the things that need attention in such cases.
Ultimately, it is only inevitable that most employees would choose to return at their convenience as safety is of prime importance. Workspaces, therefore, must validate such needs and conduct surveys to gauge when and how often would one like to do so. Gradual implementation along with rotational work practices could make the process easier and more efficient.
Policies, protocols, and people
Flexible working methods and choices are likely to be essential components of redesigned workspaces once the pandemic comes to an end. Such policies may include issues of sick leave, desk practices, and other factors that can reduce individual exposure and interaction.
One of the most important policies will include cleaning practices. Thorough and frequent cleaning of the workplace can not only eliminate chances of contagion if any but may also benefit from following neighborhood amenity models by delineating the use of shared spaces and services.
It is a possibility that, even after reopening, a certain percentage of the workforce continues to telework, partially or fully. Whether this is out of necessity or individual choice, organizations must take care to facilitate the same without stigmatizing or alienating employees. Sometimes, the fear of penalty or ostracisation can force workers to return to workspaces, which may prove to be counterproductive and downright harmful.
De-densify and leverage flexible options
With only selective fractions of the workforce coming into the office at any given time, the de-densification of workspaces is not only necessary but becomes inevitable. However, it must be ensured that such an exercise promotes flexibility and user experience rather than inhibit them.
Bringing about reforms in space utilization and desk space is a crucial step in this direction. Spaces between seats may be increased by placing extra, vacant chairs, or hot-desking. In addition to that, sanitizing desktops, ensuring one-way traffic in narrow spaces, and limiting large assemblies within the office are some of the ways in which de-densification can help promote a comfortable work environment.
Also, the capacity of board rooms may be altered. What would previously cater to groups of 10-12 individuals would now be required to downsize to 3-4. Refurbishing existing spaces to allow for social distancing is a sustainable practice that could save costs while also ensuring the safety of workers.
All steps taken in this direction must be backed by empirical research and data, as otherwise, they remain mere theorization and surmise. Both qualitative and quantitative surveys can point to better alternatives while accommodating the needs of all involved. Essentially, an improvement in space utilization is crucial to rebuilding the workplace dynamic. Changes that were previously not considered, such as activity-based working, are also feasible options in a post-pandemic scenario.
Accommodating individual needs and balancing the same with the demands of the organization as a whole is the central tenet of de-densifying office spaces. And to this end, active engagement of the entire workforce is imperative
For office buildings to be optimized for return-to-work, official guidelines must be put in place. This calls for institutional reforms that provide a common set of criteria to be followed while keeping in mind the needs of the organization.
Offices may require considerable changes in systems and operations. Given the nature of contagion, each point of touch that occurs between an employee’s parking spot and his desk. Including entrances, exits, elevators, bathrooms, doorknobs, coffee machines, and a host of other surfaces must be sanitized to perfection. Where possible, the working space must be made touch-free and remotely operated.
In addition to that, it must be ensured that cleaning protocols and landlords’ recommendations meet the requirements of the organization. To this end, employers may find themselves advocating for specificities such as hourly cleaning instead of daily, or a portion of the elevator dedicated to only the workforce coming in. Again, clear communication is the only method of coming to a consensus on such issues.
A few recommendations that aid in implementing building preparedness are:
- UV lights for light openings, antimicrobial filters, bipolar ionization
- Improved airflow
- Increased system operation duration
- Continuous ventilation of shared spaces
- Sanitation of ducts with aerosol sprays and UV light
Bathroom and Pantry Facilities
One of the main areas of focus while redesigning offices are restrooms and pantry facilities. Both warrant particular attention as they see a higher degree of close contact between individuals and are smaller spaces themselves. Also, both relate very closely to personal hygiene which is all the more reason for their safety to be ensured above all else.
Therefore, changes may be required in terms of usage, maintenance, and equipment. Regulating the use of surfaces that see a high extent of contact is essential to limiting exposure. To this end, addressing issues of comfort and cleanliness is a must.
In order to achieve this, a number of short-term and long term solutions may be implemented. The former include:
- Installing disinfectant units and lids with UVC lamps in toilets
- Adding lids to toilets that lack them in order to contain further contamination
Long term methods could be:
- Installing hands-free toilets with in-built sanitization systems
- UVC and Far-UVC lamps for added purification
Technology for UX and holistic well-being
The pandemic has certainly upped the ante for the need for spaces that pay greater attention to user experience. Investing money, time, and technology in measures towards ensuring a better platform for workers can go a long way in securing public health and safety in the workplace.
Perhaps the greatest example of implementing this would be to install touchless surfaces and remote technology. Both improve the perceived as well as actual cleanliness of the space and can be used in almost all shared amenities. App-controlled elevators, smart lighting, and even making use of platforms like Comfy can all add up to creating an office that is healthy and cares for its workers.
Sensors are another method of supporting a return-to-office program in a cost-efficient fashion. Not only are they easy for maintenance personnel to monitor, but data gathered from sensors may also be used in formulating spatial policies within the building.
Other ways to construct touch-free offices include doing away with physical mail and subsidized food ordering options where touchless delivery is possible. Each effort counts, and put together, every individual idea can pave the path for a more optimized workplace dynamic that promotes the overall wellness of its occupants.
Consider contact-tracing strategies
Collating social data from employees is one of the most effective methods of increasing engagement and thus improving the workplace experience as a whole. On a basic level, surveys provide insights to the needs and demands of employees which, if attended to, can significantly improve their performance at work.
In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in psychological, social, and financial stress in the global population, this is an especially relevant point. In addition to aiding the implementation of new social rules in the office, social data also proves valuable in laying the foundations of contact-tracing strategies that become necessary in the event of a worker being infected.
Information systems along with social data may be used to chart out interactions within the office. While this may sound like an oppressive form of surveillance, it is far from being so and has quite a favorable impact on workplace dynamics.
Room-booking apps, sensors, and security systems are useful mechanisms for tracking the movement of the office’s occupants and by extension, monitoring the use of shared space and office furniture. If found, contaminated areas may be immediately sealed off, and exposed individuals, isolated.
In addition to that, screenings and automated monitoring may also be implemented in the form of wellness protocols in order to prevent and mitigate health concerns. However, it must be kept in mind that surveillance, even for benign purposes, is a sensitive issue and all employees must be adequately briefed before such measures are put in place.
The most important thing to ensure in an organization, pandemic notwithstanding, is that employees feel cared for. It’s easy to see how in the wake of a global health crisis, this takes on even greater precedence. Now is the best time to establish a deeper relationship with workers, foster individual growth, and make allowances even if it means going out of one’s way.
Proactive engagement can be an immense help in facilitating an open workplace where employees feel free to speak up and voice their concerns. Sharing ideas and plans at every level of hierarchy are also ways to adapt to the change in dynamics and workplace systems. Also, there’s no such thing as over-communication in a work setting, especially under such unprecedented circumstances.
However, communication is only the first step. In order to truly establish a caring work environment, wellness programs, mental health support, and facilities for recreation such as yoga or meditation are effective means of developing workplace well-being.
Working remotely, in spite of the difficulties, certainly has its merits which, if carefully incorporated, can prove helpful in the future. Workplace strategies evolve with time and occurrence, and changed perspectives must be utilized to make the most of new organizational systems.
However, in order to leverage the high points of remote work, some guidelines must be heeded at all times. It is important to ensure that all employees receive the same degree of information no matter their location and that engagement remains steady. Along with employees, employers may also require training to be able to facilitate such functioning across all levels of the organization.
Investing in improved methods of communication has high returns. For instance, teleworking enables the recruitment of the best talent in a situation where geopolitical restrictions are eliminated. Lastly, remote work also allows for the optimum utilization of coworking spaces in a post-pandemic situation as fewer numbers of people lessen the chances of contagion.
In A Nutshell
Workplaces bring people together and imbibe them with a sense of shared purpose. A common vision and collaborative effort in the direction of the same are what lead to an organization’s progress and prosperity. In redesigning workspaces, therefore, the question at the center of all decisions must be a “why?”
Flexibility is the need of the hour and offices must prioritize people. Social connection and employee feedback are indispensable tools for optimizing engagement in a people-centric work environment. Additionally, smart buildings such as ones equipped with touchless operations, WELL buildings with ample sunlight and breeze, and utilization of working space must be included in new design policies.
Together, such factors can all contribute significantly to the efficient and healthy workplace we’ve been advocating for years, one that we may realize only in the wake of the pandemic.
Office design and policy, together, are bound to have long-term implications on the return-to-work phenomenon. Human potential is the greatest asset of an organization and, needless to say, a careful assessment of its needs is essential. Workplaces must be redesigned with wellness in mind, as it directly affects performance. Put simply, offices must make workers happy.
The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in modern history as far as crises go and there are important lessons to learn. What we decide now comes with significant consequences for the future. Therefore, it may be safely said that it’s on us, ultimately, to ensure that the transformation of workspaces is for the better, and one that fosters holistic development and creativity in all.
Till next time, stay safe!