Review 2019-2020

The Future of Offices

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many to rethink their physical office space. In planning a logistically-difficult return to the office, organisations appear to be asking fundamental questions about the future design and purpose of the post-pandemic office.

Whilst there are still many unknowns, the current pandemic has fuelled a seismic shift that will alter our perceptions of how and why we use offices and workspaces for years to come.

A recent survey[1] conducted by Gartner revealed that 74% of the 317 CFOs and finance leaders surveyed intend to shift at least 5% of their previously on-site employees to permanently remote positions post COVID-19. A subsequent survey[2] by Gartner found that 41% of employees are likely to work remotely at least some of the time post-pandemic – up from 30% prior to the pandemic. The initial data indicates that there will clearly be a lasting impact on working patterns and behaviours as remote working becomes more viable for many roles.

COVID-19 is highly unlikely to be the death knell of the workplace. Working is inherently social and whilst emerging technologies have allowed us to effectively collaborate during the lockdown, they have not replaced the need to be together. However, COVID-19 may have accelerated a change in the function of the workplace. Some imagine the office of the future being a smaller, collaborative space used primarily for meetings. Others have suggested the concept of a ‘3rd office’ – not a home or a city HQ but rather a regional hub. Either way, office densities and desk capacity are likely to change in some sectors as developers instead reorient their properties around organisational goals.

There are no shortage of theories regarding how the workplace might look post COVID-19, but no one knows exactly what the office of the future will look like. However, there are some indications of what might be coming.

The Way We Work is Changing

Prior to COVID-19, workplaces were largely designed to support high levels of human interaction and encourage face-to-face encounters. The shared open-plan, high-density spaces that tend to dominate office design globally were intended to bring large groups of people together in order to foster dynamic energy and collaboration. Prime offices are typically mid to high-rise, located in city centres and are marked with lots of communal and social spaces to encourage people to physically come together. Up until this point, offices have largely been designed to break down barriers between teams and individuals.

Cue COVID-19 and many of these office attributes and trends will now be questioned as companies attempt to limit unsafe physical interactions and mitigate the spread of disease. Granted, some of these attributes might return in the future, but flexible and adaptable office designs will almost certainly have a broad and enduring appeal. Agile workspace design will enable occupants to continue to operate amid unexpected health risks by providing them with the space they need to maintain physical distancing.

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Social distancing could also hasten the adoption of smart office technologies to help manage people flow and space occupancy. It could also accelerate pre-existing trends such as the growing use of “contactless” technologies throughout the office environment.

Prior to COVID-19, some key workplace trends had been developing. These include:

  • More dispersed working with greater flexibility over when and where to work
  • Better enabling technology to allow home/agile working
  • Greater focus and awareness on mental health and wellbeing in the workplace
  • Workplaces becoming more green, energy efficient and sustainable
  • Office design adopting a circular economy model (ie reuse of materials at the end of a building’s life)
  • Greater variety of task-specific spaces providing staff with choice and autonomy, eg quiet areas, informal collaborative areas
  • Increasing prevalence of sensors in fixtures, fittings and equipment to record building operation and performance
  • Headline office occupational densities have increased (typically 8m² per person) and desk sharing has become more common
  • Blurring of the boundaries between work and home/leisure space with offices being designed to provide less of an institutional or corporate feel and to keep the workforce in the building longer

Whether COVID-19 will accelerate some of these trends and force industries to reset their workplace expectations remains to be seen. However, COVID-19 has prompted a global flexible working pilot and the workplace is unlikely to stay as it is currently, nor go back to exactly how it was. The pandemic has taught us that spontaneous human interaction cannot completely be replaced by technology.

People are likely to be driven back to the office by a desire for face-to-face interaction, learning and collaboration between colleagues and teams. High-performing businesses rely heavily on good levels of collaboration to create new opportunities and solve big problems.

Office Design After COVID-19

Beyond the introduction of new employee policies, protocols and enhanced sanitation measures, the physical design of the workplace is likely to place a greater emphasis on spatial choreography and the movement of its occupants.

A recent Briefing Note from the British Council for Offices (BCO) provides some thoughts on office design and operation after COVID-19. Chief among these is occupational density. Headline occupational density may reverse its recent trend towards more densely packed offices and ‘hot-desking’ may become a thing of the past, or at least reviewed to minimise desk-sharing ratios. Indeed, we have seen recent evidence in the market of companies whose business models were transitioning from traditional to flexible workspace that have subsequently decided to shelve their development plans around shared spaces.

Many user experience aspects of office buildings could be adapted to help occupants minimise contact with potentially contaminated surfaces. For example, introducing touchless technology on doors, lifts, toilets, kitchen areas and at reception areas. Mechanical ventilation could be run outside normal office hours, natural ventilation could be more actively used (even at the expense of thermal comfort) and humidity control could be introduced as part of the base building provision so that relative humidity levels can measured and managed.

Incorporating smart solutions into office buildings was already on the rise prior to COVID-19. We are now more likely to see greater use of solutions that monitor space to track occupancy, provide location-based reminders to utilise sanitary facilities and even allow occupiers to call lifts from their phones. Although the health implications of poor air was a key focal point before the pandemic, office occupants are now likely to be hyper aware of airborne pollutants. Alongside greater investment into air filtration systems we are likely to see greater usage of apps and displays showing air quality indicators. Indeed, the World Economic Forum has indicated that China’s mass adoption of technologies to address poor air quality is thought to have assisted its office workers to return to their desks more quickly[3].

However, will COVID-19 prompt a deeper-rooted and more permanent change to the layout of offices?

Beyond rearranging desks, reconfiguring furniture and using screens, panels and barriers to divide up the workplace, offices may need to be reinvented in the longer term.

Adaptability may become as important, if not more important, than density or cost as designs will need to be able to adapt to not only health disruptions, but economic and climatic ones too.

This is an extract from our report on GT Market Intelligence.

Visit our microsite to read the full report.

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