How Has the Pandemic Affected Workplace Design?Gaya Mahesh, July 10, 2021 | Reading Time: 21 minutes
The longer we work from our own homes, the more we yearn for face-to-face interactions. Having shared experiences with our co-workers and office friends matters. We socialize in teams and build lasting bonds with them. These relationships provide us with coaches, mentors, and inspirations. This is how we build a team. A new normal needs a new workplace design.
However, the global pandemic created a natural experiment for the working population. Worldwide, the closure of office spaces and the transition to remote working were difficult.
But after 18 months of remote working, there is now a natural inclination to work from home. There will be no going back to the pre-pandemic workplace – shuffling between meetings and overflowing calendars for deadlines.
The Evolution of Workplace Design
When offices first began expanding, they were perceived to be a functional space. A place to get work done and then go home. A completely functional space. Productivity or positivity was not at the forefront of this design. Hence, categorizing office design was easy: white cubicles and meeting rooms.
Over the last decade, this mentality has changed. Introducing technology into the office has made us more connected and flexible. Wi-Fi is a staple in almost every office. This means that the workplace design is interconnected. Besides this, employees do not have to be in the same place to work. Instead, employees can work from wherever they are situated.
Digital transformation during the pandemic
The pandemic allowed us to change the way we work. Firstly, let’s look at the months leading up to the pandemic. 2020 began with the breakout of Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Technology. This means that many organizations could successfully implement years’ worth of digital transformation plans over a few months.
Secondly, the abundance of Virtual Meeting programs like Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams meant people could schedule and meet as often as needed. In sectors like Real Estate, clients agreed to do virtual meetings before looking at the site.
Finally, even companies that needed the workforce in close quarters worked with 30-50% of the population.
Flexibility means more opportunity
Introducing flexible working to offices means that there is more opportunity to reduce the cost of operations while increasing the productivity of employees. Firstly, to understand the redesign of office spaces and how they reduce the cost of operations, we should know our occupancy rates and vacancy rates.
In cities like Bengaluru, the first quarter of 2020 hit the office market hard. As workers switched from offices to working from home, vacancy rates rose by 5.6%. By Q2 of 2021, the vacancy rate rose again to 6.2%. There is now a growing fear that office spaces will remain vacant.
Talks such as redesign and repurposing of office spaces have become common. Lease agreements, rentals, and other opportunities have grown during the pandemic. As the workforce returns to the office, we can maximize the usage of redesigned spaces. This will make work-life productive for the employees.
Elements incorporated in modern offices
Traditional offices no longer suit the modern workforce. In today’s digital world, security, productivity, and employee wellness need to be maximized. Here’s how we can incorporate these three essential elements into modern offices:
Joy of Safety
Security is the number one priority in offices. Technology becomes a key element in keeping your business secure. Earlier, in traditional office spaces, punching cards used to be the norm. Later, the incorporation of digital card scanners came into modernized office spaces.
Data privacy and safety issues while using Zoom were at the forefront during the pandemic. Thus, how offices are designed for employees to enter and exit must be adapted to technology. Post pandemic offices will have fingerprint scanners or face recognition to add a valuable layer of safety to the workplace.
One Man, Many Tasks
It’s no secret that businesses want their employees to be productive. When work from home was first established as a precautionary measure against the COVID virus, productivity dipped. The transition from office spaces to working alone was difficult. However, the flexibility afforded by work from home also showed we could achieve productivity in an environment devoid of distractions.
Post pandemic, when workers return to the office, businesses should focus on enhancing employee experience and improving ROI. This means providing the right technology to complete their tasks, automation tools to improve functionality, and open spaces where they can recharge and rest with co-workers.
Better Health By Design
Health is wealth, and by focusing on the health of employees, companies can save more money. Effective cost management is nothing but a series of steps taken to improve employee’s lives and the employees will improve the ROI for the company.
A few simple incorporations into the post-pandemic workplace could be to add more greenery in the office, designing alcoves to provide the opportunity for serendipitous conversations, optimize breakout rooms to build office culture, standing desks, open design replacing cubicles, and motivational wall stickers to offset the stark white walls.
The Post Pandemic Models of Working
The hybrid model of working was a proposed way to transition from home to work easier for the employees. This hybrid model of working also means that organizational structure must adapt to the occupancy rate of the office.
One way to play around and optimize the design in a workplace based on occupancy rates is to look at different office configurations. If a group is brainstorming or hosting a workshop, designers could make the space much larger, providing technology inlets. If a daily meeting is going on, the design of the space could be an open one, with enough furnishings.
Simultaneously, it would be wise to experiment and strengthen virtual work. Working virtually for the last 18 months does not mean the full potential of virtual work is discovered. Understanding what makes virtual work more productive for a percentage of their workforce is important. It provides data to incorporate some of these practices into office space design.
Here are some of the office space designs we can expect in a post-pandemic world:
Batch or Hybrid model
In the Batch model, the design of office spaces allows for 50% of the workforce to be present. This model only allows for the essential teams to come in every two weeks. However, this model has proven to be effective in very few industries. It is an outdated and overused model. It does not fit well for most of the workforce.
Hub and spoke model
The Hub and spoke model concentrates on operating a centralized main office (hub) with more localized offices (spokes) around the country. This model allows for flexibility and mobility and takes advantage of geography. Offices with a large percentage of the workforce as virtual workers can scale down on office space. This means that they reduce rent and improve their business.
When successfully implemented, studies have shown that allowing an option of either working in the office (hub) or from home (spoke) has allowed for an increase in productivity.
This model allows for the right balance of technology and face-to-face interaction. It can help employees handle challenges and be future-ready.
The Necessity of Offices
Why do we need offices at all? If technology has made working and connection so simple, what is the necessity to return to office space?
The necessity of offices begins with the importance of face-to-face interactions. Pre-existing office models allow for serendipitous interactions, informal chatter, and rest points where people stop and interact with people outside their team. Besides, to come to the office, people must show up in proper workwear.
These minor details help in building office culture. Further, onboarding new hires is easier done in person than using virtual systems. The ease of welcoming someone new comes from having a strong office culture, to begin with.
In industries where privacy of office data is paramount, it becomes important to provide employees access to work laptops. Using technology and sharing information through technology is difficult when privacy is a factor in working virtually.
Thus, office space is a physical representation of an organization’s culture, people, and goals. The challenge of having hybrid office models lies in making them cohesive. This means that companies must clearly define what they want and need from the employees to make everything run smoothly.
Who Prefers Returning to the Pre-Pandemic Office?
Research has shown that relaxing restrictions means the first to come back to the pre-pandemic models of working are top-tier executives.
While working in the pre-pandemic models might be difficult, top-tier executives believe that defined workplaces should differ from home. They want to relax at home and work in the office.
Mid-level managers and Assistant Managers feel the same way. A workplace is defined by hours, cubicles, and the dress code. This will only be possible in a structured environment.
However, more and more juniors are waking up to the idea of a work-life balance. Projects such as repurposing empty spaces and redesigning them into office spaces are innovative and gaining the attention of their managers.
For juniors, the pandemic has shown a workplace is not somewhere you go; it is something you do. Their idea is to bring in a vision for the future that focuses on technology, creativity, privacy, and design thinking.
Issues such as commuting, a balance between privacy and openness in floor plans, health and well-being, and unassigned seating are some issues to be discussed in the workplace.
Recent research has shown that over 53% of the workforce is hesitant to return to a pre-pandemic office design. Redesign of workplaces post-pandemic will therefore meet these additional needs soon.
This is mainly why the post-pandemic office design will differ from the pre-pandemic office design. The idea is to bring a balance between old and new.
An important question to ask is: how do we incorporate the good and let go of the bad?
Making Work Better for All
Flexibility has become the No 1 factor in post-pandemic office space design. A flexible company can hire talent beyond the confines of its geography. In addition to this, a flexible workplace design will attract top-shelf candidates. This again leads to an increase in productivity, cost optimization, and loyalty to the company.
Forward-thinking post-pandemic companies will see the rise in the hub and spoke model of offices. Most executives are already embracing this model and adapting technology to ensure it runs everything smoothly.
The pandemic has also highlighted the rapidly decaying state of the environment. With growing concern over the environment, employees are now more interested in how office space design helps the environment.
Therefore, the hub and spoke model office designs have a positive environmental impact. Downsizing a large company into a smaller one also shrinks its carbon footprint. The energy spent on air conditioning and the emissions from commuting employee vehicles reduce.
The model also allows allowance for people who work best in a quiet space. People settled elsewhere do not need to be at the hub to work. They can save on rent and earn at the same time.
The successful hub and spoke design are more efficient than an open plan because there is a customization of the workplace depending on the worker. Individual employees no longer need dedicated desks. If an employee working from home prefers an ergonomic desk or a space hopper to work efficiently, he/she is more than welcome to add it to his/her space.
Employers do not need to remind their employees of the benefits of working in an office. Throughout the last year, everyone working from home has at some point wanted to go back to the office.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we have different expectations from employers but still need a structured environment to work in. This means that our blueprint for what is a great place to work will change as the pandemic eases.
This is an opportunity to rethink the physical workspace. Rethinking will help us create workplace design where employees want to be and do their best work.
Thus, the point of workplace design is in fact, to make working better for all.