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Resetting the workplace: what's the role for location-based workspaces now?

Since mechanical engineer Frank Taylor first popularised the idea of the open plan office to maximise industrial efficiency in the early 20th century the office has for many employees been the place where ‘work is done’.

But with organisations across the world committing to more flexible working, what role should the office, plant or other work location now play? And how can organisations ensure that reimagined workspaces empower the individual and put employee wellbeing at their heart while being used in an intentional way? It’s all about ‘we space’ not ‘me space’ finds Robert Gray of The People Space.

The office is dead, long live the office!

Early on in the pandemic questions emerged as to whether the office had a future, given that employers were pleasantly surprised to discover their people were working from home effectively. Why pay for space we don’t need?, wondered business owners and chief financial officers.   

But as the months went by and organisations began crafting hybrid work policies, a more nuanced discussion held sway. For many, not going to the workplace represented a void in their lives, a restriction of social interaction that was adversely affecting their wellbeing. At the same time the feeling grew that video calls couldn’t match face-to-face for collaboration and creativity.

Set against this is the sentiment shared by a large swathe of workers that they don’t want a return to the status quo ante. YouGov research for BBC found that 60% said their post pandemic preference would be to work from home, either all of the time (22%) or some of the time (38%). 

All of this points to a need to reset the workplace, to make it a more attractive option for workers and a physical asset fine-tuned to drive performance. This is by no means easy – so where to start?

Start with the language of care

Dr Nik Winchester, Senior Lecturer in Management and Head of the Department of Public Leadership and Social Enterprise at The Open University Business School (OUBS), says it’s vital to listen to the ‘employee voice’ so that discussions around resetting the workplace are ethical and based on care. “If we start with the language of care, then we listen to people and hear what their needs are. That initiates how we interact with people, so it’s not a case of, ‘you’re back three days a week, it’s an open-plan office and you’re hot desking now’.”

Winchester adds that employers must consider how wellbeing is made through spaces at work, particularly private spaces. “If you need to have a conversation about your child or another kind of private conversation, you should be able to do that. You should be able to raise difficult issues with your managers in a private space. It’s making sure the space enables the whole person rather than just the worker.” 

Entrepreneur Eddie Black, founder of Eco Group, certainly involved his employees, asking them to co-create a 3,000 square-metre HQ with collaboration in mind. The building, in the Scottish Borders town of Annan, opened in August 2021 and includes “light, modern, inspiring workspaces” with a top floor designated as a health and wellbeing area complete with gym and roof-garden-style relaxation area.

“People sometimes forget that working from home also means living at work and that can have a lot of negative impacts on families, including on mental health,” says Black. “We wanted to create an environment where people want to come into work. This building is about bringing everyone together where everyone brings something to the table.”

Reengineering the workspace

Cloudflare, which employs more than 1,900 people across 16 global offices, has always considered itself “an office-first company”, according to its head of people Janet Van Huysse, who adds that it has been a priority since the early days of the pandemic to get its people back in the office as quickly and safely as possible. However, it soon became clear that COVID-19 had fundamentally changed the way employees use an office and it was vital to reengineer space.

Rows of assigned desks have been eliminated in favour of flexible seating zones purposefully designed for team sprints and focused workshops. In this way teams can come together for a day, week or longer to claim the space and collaborate for the duration of a project. These flexible spaces will be able to grow or shrink to fit the team’s needs, offering several types of work zones to serve different purposes, from collaboration to focused solo work.

Van Huysse takes the view that if one person is remote for a meeting, then everybody should join remotely to level things up and avoid proximity bias. “One of the fundamental new features of our new offices will be a video conferencing village, made up of individual phone booths meant for single users. In fact, these are the only spaces that will be equipped with videoconferencing functionality. This way, our people working in the office can join as solo, ‘remote’ participants when needed, so other remote participants feel like they have an equal seat at the ‘virtual’ table.”

These kinds of shifts have certainly given the commercial property industry much to consider. Real estate services and investment firm CBRE is among those to make future workplace predictions, including: space allocations will favour “we space” over “me space”; amenities strategies will focus on hospitality and services; employees will demand more “elbow room”; healthy building design will take centre stage; and how we define workplace performance will change.   

Mark Catchlove, director, global insight group at office furniture and ‘placemaking’ company Herman Miller, says offices are being designed to support a broad spectrum of work and it’s wrong to assume focus will be done at home and the office will be solely for collaboration. “Focus spaces within the office will still be needed, not necessarily private, but places where people will not be disturbed. Leesman research, one of the world's largest and continuous studies of office-goers, showed that one of the biggest problems within an office before the pandemic was noise and addressing this moving forward will be even more important. In addition to products being developed to minimise noise, we are starting to see areas being designated as quiet areas – where agreed protocols are observed.”

Healthy built environments

In line with CBRE’s predictions, whether buildings are healthy or not has become a major issue within the context of resetting the workplace. A recent survey by facilities and property management company Mitie of 5,000 UK-wide office workers who worked from home during the pandemic found 35% are still concerned their offices aren’t COVID secure and 60% believe that their employer needs to improve the office environment to prevent people from becoming ill. Asked which measures would provide them with the confidence to return to the workplace, better ventilation systems, increased cleaning regimes, and technology like desk booking apps or UV disinfection systems were all on the list.

“Rather than taking a leap of faith or businesses simply assuming they understand what their colleagues want, we work with many of our customers to roll out these changes alongside regular employee surveys to understand how and when they want to use office space,” says Daniel Guest, chief operating officer at Mitie Technical. “We also use specialist sensors to keep track of site occupancy as well as which spaces are the most popular. This data can then be used to understand how the workspace is being used and to help identify positive changes to the site, such as adding more desks or creating more collaboration spaces, that can ensure it is an effective space for employees.”

European Property Federation Chairman Liviu Tudor, who is also CEO of office developer Genesis Property, is an enthusiastic backer of a new Immune Building Standard launched to minimise the impact of pandemics like COVID-19 and other bacteriological and toxicological health threats in built environments. Going forward, in addition to making buildings healthier, Tudor believes places such as office parks will need to incorporate new experiences to make them more attractive to workers, so that commuting feels worthwhile.

“The office park will become something like a mixed-use development, something very complex with all kinds of experiences where people can work and live and play and have a good time,” says Tudor. “Office space will be needed but in a different way. You should have on the ground floor some space for events and [throughout the building] lots of interesting spaces for different activities not necessarily linked with work you are providing for your employer. It is about the life of a corporate employee and must be more attractive than what we used to have.”

Listening to employees

Of course, offices aren’t the only kind of workspace and resetting is happening in other environments too. Siemens has created a virtual reality (VR) ‘cave’ at its Congleton factory in Cheshire to simulate and optimise assembly processes, improve factory planning and aid the creation and review of design concepts. Carl German, a Siemens’ transformation manager, says it has been a gamechanger. “It’s no exaggeration to say it has changed the way we think and act. Every single production operative in the factory has either seen or experienced it. It’s key that the technology is not seen as something for a privileged few. As a result, we now bring VR into every facet of what we do.”

More broadly across the UK business, Siemens plc director of HR Valerie Todd says the company has “set up listening groups for employees in each of our office locations, so the views of employees have been incorporated into the design. We know that our employees’ expectations are evolving and we are determined to lean into this.” 

Organisations face big challenges in resetting the workspace, all the more so against a backdrop of societal changes, for example the hollowing out of town centres due to the rise of online shopping. Should there be more of an effort to integrate with town plans? Undoubtedly, some local authorities are working hard to reimagine the high street.

More than half the world’s population now lives in cities and according to the UN that will hit 60% by 2030, raising many issues including pollution and overcrowding. Given the rapid rise of ESG, organisations must think more carefully than ever about the impact of their buildings – on their employees and more widely.

As OUBS’ Winchester says: “We need to engage in genuine dialogue in reaching collective solutions, so we have both eclectic ownership but we reach some kind of agreement on recognising differences and also commonalities on how we are going to use space in the future.”

The Research into Employment, Empowerment and Futures group (REEF) is proud to be partnering with The People Space. This article was originally published on The People Space website; click to read the original article.

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