Beyond Re-entry: How your office will need to change post-COVID

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By Alex Birch

 

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times published a pretty brilliant series of articles exploring the impact of the great COVID-19 ‘work from home’ (WFH) experiment on the working lives of the lucky 30% of workers who could transition to remote work. 

The series explored some of the reasons why white-collar workers are unlikely to rush back into offices and I found the conclusions correlating strongly with both the data our sensors are capturing in workplaces across Australia and the frontline experiences I’m hearing about from customers.

As Co-Founder of XY Sense, I’ve been lucky enough to chat with heads of property and workplace experience teams throughout their response to the pandemic. Now that the dust is settling on most city-wide lockdowns, many are starting phased office re-entry programs and they consistently report that very few workers are choosing to return to the office. I’m talking 5-15% utilisation of already drastically reduced COVID floor capacities in a city like Sydney which has and is largely keeping a lid on COVID-19. 

There are obviously a ton of factors at play in why people are choosing not to return to offices when they reopen, including; very relevant and real anxiety about COVID-19, new ‘at home learning’ and childcare commitments as well as increased care commitments for elderly or otherwise at risk family members among many others.

But as we try to look beyond the pandemic, what interests me most are those data points that signal the workplace changes we need to make to adapt our offices to meet the new uniquely 21st century, post-COVID  expectations of our workforce. 

Yes, we’ve liked working from home during the pandemic:

  • A large majority (86%) are satisfied with working from home. (NY Times

  • A big chunk (38%) of us are less stressed without the commute.(Financial Review)

  • We (75%) believe we’ve maintained both individual and collaborative productivity. (BCG)

  • A high majority of those surveyed (88%) believe they have the resources to keep working from home if they need to. (CultureAmp)

But significant WFH studies conducted pre-pandemic have also shown that working remotely has its downsides too:

  • Working from home for extended periods can leave employees feeling socially and professionally isolated.

  • Working from home more than 2.5 days a week could negatively affect relationships with coworkers as well as knowledge transfer.

  • Remote workers report feeling less confident than their office-based colleagues.

  • Many remote workers report having difficulties maintaining work-life boundaries with 48% of employees increasing their work hours in one study.

It’s obvious that the immediate post-pandemic office needs to be COVID-safe with enhanced cleaning, distanced workstations and sensor-based alerts for social distance breaches

But how will the office as we know it need to change in the longer term to help workers and businesses strike the balance between the pros and cons of both remote work and office-based work? 

As someone who’s worked in and around corporate real estate for 15+ years specialising in the intersection of technology and employee enablement in the office, here are my big three predictions: 

1. Goodbye fixed desk, hello hybrid workstation 

Your dedicated desk in the office is a thing of the past and not just because the grubby accumulation of coffee cups on your desk poses a health hazard. 

It’s just not going to be financially viable for companies to maintain dedicated workstations for every employee when most companies expect 40% of their employees to follow a remote or hybrid working model in the future. In a previous post, I modelled the eye-watering cost to business of an office building sitting at 30% utilisation. Somehow, I don’t see businesses continuing to bear that level of cost into 2030.

Enter the hybrid workstation. 

Whereby, for the majority of white-collar workers, our primary individual work requiring focus and time will likely be conducted at home (internet and family responsibilities permitting). 

It will still be possible to head into the office to work but if you want a dedicated workstation in the near term you’ll need to book ahead of time and actually show up or risk that workstation being un-usable for others due to pandemic cleaning protocols. (Though smart sensor tech like XY Sense can limit this.) 

When it comes to capacity planning. There’s just no getting around the fact that until we get a vaccine or a pandemic break-through, our progressive activity-based office environments are going to have to remain under-utilised. James Calder, Global Director of Era-co recently likened ABW office environments to “land-based cruise ships” and the “perfect incubator for passing this thing around.”

In the longer term, I think ABW is here to stay but that we’ll see an overall reduction in floor space dedicated to open plan desks as well as a more thoughtful execution of the reduced volume of workstations on a floor; potentially more space between workstations, strong WiFi signal strength for video conferencing and clearer signage on who’s booked that space for the day. 

The challenge will be for organisations to properly serve the now more transient nature of people coming into the office. People will be in the office less and likely for a specific client meeting or team working group. When they’re not in collaborative spaces, they’ll need to be able to seamlessly connect with other colleagues working from home or from satellite spaces. 

Striking the balance between the right numbers of workstations, private phone booths and book-able and non-bookable workstations will be unique to each organisation’s needs and culture and will likely require some data-informed experimentation and utilisation analysis. 

2.Rise of suburban co-working offices

For those that can’t or don’t want to work from home, I don’t think that they’ll necessarily have to trudge all the way into the CBD office to get stuff done. The idea of suburban satellite offices where people can do focus work away from family or meet with colleagues/clients without a lengthy commute have suddenly become the talk of the industry and it’s easy to see why. 

I think Jesse Klein over at Greenbiz encapsulates their promise best; 

“Even if remote work becomes the long-term norm for every company post-pandemic, humans still like to work together. There’s still a part of us that wants to physically come together to collaborate and connect. So real estate strategies may turn towards smaller neighbourhood satellite offices in multiple suburban locations, instead of one massive complex that serves an entire region or, in some cases, an entire state. These smaller satellite hubs could allow employees to come together a few times a week and supply high-speed internet and better backgrounds than a kitchen table for important meetings, while also being less crowded for social distancing concerns, giving employees shorter commutes and allowing for a quieter, more accessible outdoor environments than a typical bustling financial district location.”

As the father of a newborn and a precocious four year old, the idea of being able to duck to a dedicated office space inside of 15 minutes for a client meeting without a screaming cameo is a particularly appealing prospect. And with commute times exploding around the world, I doubt I’d be alone here. 

Unbiased, accurate data will need to play a key role in selecting satellite office locations to ensure they’re placed to serve the majority of a company’s workers because it would be disappointing and downright stupid to see satellite offices positioned in leafy elite suburbs designed to only service executives. 

On that matter, there’s probably some unintended people and culture consequences that will need to be carefully thought through when you consider equity of access to business leadership and the potential for satellite cliques and various other antics that could eventuate as a result of humanity’s innate tribalism.

Regardless of how they’re executed however, the rise of the suburban satellite office will represent a fairly monumental shift in the way companies approach both their workplace and corporate real estate strategy. Rather than a major corporate headquarters and a few regional offices, you could see employees working from hundreds of satellite locations. 

It’s unlikely that we’re going to see many companies purchasing swathes of suburban commercial real estate for dedicated offices in the near future. It is capital intensive and requires a lot of resources to maintain. The likely answer then? More suburban co-working spaces. 

Yes, I predict the WeWork, WOTSOs and Stone&Chalk’s of the world are coming to a high street near you. 

Apart from potentially being the answer to WeWork’s woes, co-working spaces will allow companies to pay for the space they need in a desirable satellite location without any of the hassle and overheads associated with setting up a dedicated office. 

The re-designed collaborative HQ 

Corporate HQ is dead. Long live corporate HQ! 

Speaking of psychology and as I mentioned in my last post, I don’t believe that COVID is the end of the corporate HQ or office tower. 

You’re not going to see a big bank give up it’s naming rights on it’s corporate HQ or vacate a building they’ve spent millions architecting and designing to be the physical expression of their organisation’s brand, culture and the social connectivity of its people.  

So, if we’re retaining our corporate offices largely located in central business districts around the world how are they going to change?

First, they will probably be smaller. 

As discussed above, with a reduction in need for dedicated workstations for every employee, companies are likely going to look to recoup costs on now empty floors through strategic subleasing. I don’t expect this right-sizing of footprint to be drastic (greater than 15%) but I do expect it to be fairly widespread and for it to have upside benefits for mid-size/ growth firms who can now upgrade to tier one space previously out of reach.

Within the HQ itself, spaces will need to be re-designed to adapt the new way people will want to work when they do come into the office. 

There’ll be more dedicated collaboration and project spaces. 

If individual focus work is largely done remotely, one of the main reasons people will want to commute to the office will be for team workshops, creative brainstorming and collaborative work. Or otherwise to meet with clients and partners within the branded ambiance of your HQ.

We know that meeting room accessibility and booking challenges were already one of the biggest gripes facing office workers pre-pandemic, so to better support this type of work, it’s clear that businesses will need to increase the number and adapt the design/ configurations of meeting rooms and collaboration spaces.

As with the dedicated workstations above, digital room booking systems will be essential, even after the pandemic has subsided. After all, if you’re bringing in four colleagues on a Thursday for a workshop, you want to know you’ve got an appropriate space to get your planning done. As will ensuring that the majority of collaborative spaces or meeting rooms have appropriate video conferencing technologies installed to support dial-in connections with team members working from home or satellite offices. 

As with workstations, capturing accurate utilisation data upon office re-entries, can help workplace experience and property teams to better understand their company’s ‘new normal’ and measure before they act on reducing specific numbers of workstations or planning new/additional meeting room fitouts. 

Finally, informal socialisation and open multi-purpose spaces are going to need to increase. 

Yes, during the pandemic that giant shared kitchen with tables scattered around for people to sit, chat and eat after they’ve zapped their leftovers in the microwave is a COVID breeding ground and will likely be restricted. 

But in the long term, it’s going to be critical to create an environment where people can socialise with their peers and thrive when they are in the office. If they’re spending 3 days a week working remotely, when they’re in the office, nurturing social connectivity is going to be key. 

Think expanded kitchens and cafe areas, chat booths, gyms for group fitness and seminar spaces. These spaces won’t be bookable and will be provided to support those chance interactions, cross-team social events and all-hands fireside chats with leaders that nurture organisational culture.

What’s the timeline?

When all is said and done I think this transition to the hybrid office, incorporating new satellite spaces and re-designing corporate offices for more effective co-located working and collaboration will take anywhere from 1-5 years and will be a major priority for both workplace experience and property teams.

It’s going to take time to build the confidence of workers to return to offices and to properly adapt both office spaces and working models to enable people to move seamlessly between onsite and remote work. 

For my part, I can’t wait to be able to workshop face-to-face with my team again. 

Yours truly,

(a CEO working remotely under lockdown in Melbourne)

Alex 

I’m curious to know how you think our workplace environments will need to change post-pandemic? What trends are you seeing in workers returning to workers? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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