Shaping the workplace of the future – four key questions

6 min read

The future of the workplace has never looked so uncertain. What will be the impact of the coronavirus on how we work? It is clear that workplaces are unlikely to ever be the same again – but what does that mean in practice? How can companies ensure that they are making the right changes at the right time?

We recently held a virtual roundtable with business leaders from a huge variety of sectors joining a debate about the evolving workplace post-COVID-19 and to share their thoughts on what challenges and opportunities the crisis presents to the workplace.

Corporates, consultants and contractors must work quickly to ensure they do not fall behind their peers as discussion around the future of the workplace transitions into investment decisions and a new way of working.

In our session, it became clear there are a number of critical questions every workplace owner and occupier should be asking themselves: 

Who is the workplace for?

It was clear from the discussion that in the short to medium term some workplaces would be re-opening for critical workers only, with a large consensus view that the office would now serve as a hub for collaborative and connected work and people spending time at home for ‘singular working’.

Even once offices are fully opened from lockdown, it is vital that occupiers and clients are clear about what their employees want and what they gain from being physically in the workplace.

Participants recognised that workforce views on remote working will vary amongst different age groups – graduates and junior staff seek career development guidance, mentoring, cultural and social experience, thus making them more likely to lose out if they homework all the time compared to more experienced staff.

Different types of function will also see some difference; ‘simple’ roles with limited cross-function interaction may find that home working offers more than the office; but more ‘complex’ functions that draw on more areas of the business will likely suffer from dips in creativity as chance encounters with colleagues are removed in virtual environments.

Occupiers must have a detailed understanding of their people and how changes to the office or workplace will change their experience of work. Without that understanding, delivering a re-imagined workplace will be challenging.

What purpose does the workplace serve?

Alongside understanding who uses our workplaces, we must decide what the workplace is really for. Everyone recognises that remote or ‘mixed-mode’ working is now here with us to stay – but that means we need to work up a clear vision of what purpose the workplaces serve.

This will differ between organisations, as well as between functions inside the same company. Not everyone can transition so easily between on-site and home working.

Flexibility for workplaces will be critical, both in terms of serving the new needs of employees but also in case of further restrictions or lockdowns if coronavirus or another pandemic re-emerges in the future.

Occupiers will need to establish how much that flexibility matters to them and how much space they will need. The use of smart data on office utilisation will be crucial in monitoring changes to worker behaviour as offices re-open across the globe.

What culture are we trying to create?

Whenever there are large scale changes to how people work, you risk changing company culture. Participants were clear that efforts to protect and enhance organisational culture – such as scheduled check-ins on staff wellbeing – had been critical to keeping people engaged during lockdown.

This becomes more challenging when some people begin to return to the office, and others don’t – or in organisations where some facilities (like factories or construction sites) had remained operational and offices had closed.

Part of that cultural shift will be defined by how the transition from office to home and back again has been managed and will be managed in the future.

Most people agreed that whilst work from home policies have long been in place, the focus has shifted to more long-term requirements – supplying equipment isn’t just about furniture, we need to understand people’s needs, workflows and support systems to create a comfortable and productive homework environment.

Instilling trust in the employees to feel safe to return to the office will take work – likewise trust in the employees will play a role in shaping workplace practices at home. People are likely to be happier and more productive if they feel they have had influence in creating their new workplace requirements.  

How can our workplace help to ensure we are fit for the future?

Participants were in agreement that the nature of the workplace had changed fundamentally, although largely in-line with existing trends.

Few companies had developed business continuity plans that accounted for such a fundamental shift in working practises – but many had found it easier than expected. Organisations were largely resilient, but some gaps emerged.

In some cases, off-shore operations haven’t stood up well to the transition. Perhaps ironically given the focus on remote working, in-sourcing is now being considered by some to regain tighter product and service control.

Some held the view that after years of discussion about ‘people focussed’ workplaces centred on choice, the pandemic would finally lead to a genuine transformation. They pointed to a potential future where many people would be given the tools they need and the choice of where – and how – they wanted to work.  

In order to make sure that the workplace is a genuine enabler of future change, companies must act now to ensure that they are reflecting on these questions. As companies re-occupy their workplaces and begin to strategically review their approaches they plan carefully.

A critical balance must be struck between acting quickly to deliver change and ensuring that you genuinely understand what you, your company and your employees want and need.