The Emerging Features of a Workplace Shaped by Covid

The current challenging times may be passing - but they're going to have a very long shadow!

And while we are seeing a lot of predictions at the moment, I will keep this article firmly rooted in the present; drawing on observations from what we have worked on in the past few weeks, to try and provide some insight into where our workplaces might be heading.

 

What are the immediate consequences of lockdown?

Time - It has had a profound effect on time for a start!  The conventions of the Gregorian Calendar, of hours, days, weeks and months all seem warped, which in turn is putting strains on us as individuals, and also on our organisations. In part this is due to the total removal of the boundary line between our work persona and the other parts of our lives. 

In strange ways this has turned some into 24/7 employees – never fully leaving work behind, with the team meeting being chaired from the top of the microwave, and the heavy-weight report on investment buffed up on the arm of a lounge chair!  That is not healthy or sustainable in the long run, and we all need time and space to regenerate and refocus - I personally have found myself missing the daily commute; the 70mph bubble of neutrality where I can think/reflect/unwind/get wound up etc. While it may have taken an hour out of each end of my day, it provided the headspace to let go of one arena of combat and prepare for the next - a form of rest & relaxation.

 

Technology  - Overall, there are very positive initial signs, given that the technology had never been tested on this scale!  After some teething issues it appears that the broadband infrastructure is holding up, peer engagement by video-conference is becoming acceptable, and overall productivity is looking positive – even better that with an office based cohort.

 

Team  - Then let’s look at the ‘Work from Home’ experiment from an interpersonal aspect; there are some interesting dynamics starting to appear.  

  • Senior managers have had no option but to work from home…and have had a pleasant surprise.
  • The naysaying chorus of middle management about persons work ethic when not directly supervised has been debunked.
  • All members’ physical and mental wellbeing has been put in the spotlight.
  • The work from home mode has engendered good levels of trust across all tiers of the team, and in some cases those brief glimpses of a colleague’s natural habitat has helped deepen respect and understanding.

 

Trust  - All of the above suggests that, trust is up?   It is…cautiously. But that is from an initial standpoint of near-zero trust.  There are trust issues around job security, but the primary issue is around the prospect of restarting a commute into City Centres on public transport.   Trust (and fear) are still significant factors which are defining our behaviours, and will certainly be a consideration for any teams looking to regroup back in the cities.  We know the tech works, personal performance works, trust between colleagues works, but the use of public transport and municipal spaces does not work (yet). 

 

How have these factors informed office design

First and foremost, there is the almost insatiable desire to connect socially again.  It is the one most cited reason why persons want to go back to the office, meaning that despite much heralding of the ‘end of the office’ we are more likely looking at a shift in purpose – and an expanding of the boundaries.

Where is the new workplace?  You are reading this article sitting in it – wherever you are!

The new workplace is everywhere – as discussed before the work: life boundary is all but gone, and staff are enjoying the benefits of this.

There is little evidence of a rush back to the old paradigm which raises questions about what the purpose of the office really is (especially when you consider that most workplaces have been running at between 30% - 60% occupancy most of the time)

The clients we are currently working with are asking for the following:

  • Floorplates to be more open plan. No-one knows what is expected of the space in the future, however these open areas are sectioned off with screens, storage and plants.
  • Space re-allocated so that the distribution is more biased towards meeting space.
  • Meeting space requirements have shifted – less closed spaces, More informal furniture, more stand up / brainstorm, more tech-enabled space (but some of these in the open)
  • Most desks non-allocated, with a stringent clear-desk policy to enable cleaning. Clear shielding for where personnel will be working in close proximity.
  • Personal pedestals removed and replaced with lockers local to the different work areas
  • Some teams being more permanently based in the office (HR and finance being the most regularly named departments cited). And more bespoke provision being made for them, such as HR Interview rooms, secure storage more consideration for privacy
  • All other spaces will be bookable, and task related – zoom pods, bookable rooms, shared desks
  • Tea points to be more open, requiring more microwaves / fridges etc to try and eliminate the old pinch points.
  • Increase in use of disposibles (cups etc) resulting in more recycling and waste point.
  • Décor to be lighter, friendlier, with more greenery.
  • Branding - there is a desire to have the branding in evidence; the physical space needs to exude the competence and personality of the company.

 

What has been noticeable is the relaxation of divisions and separation even in the last week.  As the threat of a return of Covid appears to recede, the partitioned – even cubicled space that was being called for is reverting to a lower rise landscape.  Is this a sign that over time our offices will return to the old norm?  It’s too early to say, but with an increasing number of companies using the term ‘blended approach’ or ‘hybrid office’ I expect that we will be living a part home / part office existence for some months to come, by which time the initial hasty response to leaving the office and working from home will have given way to more sustainable habits.

So much hangs on the course the present pandemic now takes, and the ensuing economic fall-out which most countries will have to contend with.  So until then we can do little other than guess – hence I sign this article off …[work in progress]

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