Can we make the Post-Covid Office a Destination of Choice?

A seven-step plan for putting the wow factor back into the workplace

June 2020

Words by Katie Puckett

If work really is a thing you do rather than a place you go, where does that leave the office?

For the last few weeks, WSP has been exploring the ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic may change the places where many of us spent so much of our lives, from how physical distancing will affect workplace culture, to the technicalities of virus-proofing the office environment, to whether there will still be so much demand for commercial space in a post-Covid world.

Mass working from home during the lockdown has given us a new perspective on the office, and perhaps the most fundamental shift is that going there will now be a conscious decision. For decades, offices have enjoyed an unquestioned status as the default location for knowledge work, places that we could – and sometimes did – go to with our eyes closed.

Over the coming months and years, individuals and organizations will make their own assessments about the role and value of a dedicated workplace, and they may reach very different conclusions. But one thing is for sure: if we decide that the office is still important – for productivity, for collaboration, for identity – it will have to become a destination of choice.

Successful offices of the future may have more in common with retail or entertainment venues that compete for every visit by offering a compelling, constantly evolving experience. We need to eliminate the barriers or frictions that make offices uncomfortable or unpopular, enhance and complement the positive, and go beyond to add some intangible chemistry or magic that lures people in and keeps them coming back time and time again.

Could an office ever inspire that most potent of 21st-century emotions, “fear of missing out”? We’ve compiled a seven-point plan to help it get there.

1. Don’t fail on the hygiene factor

Infection control will continue to be a top priority until a vaccine against Covid-19 is available. But even when the immediate threat has passed, there is likely to be a lasting mindset change as we better understand how disease can spread. Employers will need to make changes to the office environment, and demonstrate to employees that they have taken proper precautions to protect them. We’ve already looked at ways to virus-proof the office through physical distancing, enhanced cleaning and improved air quality, as well as strategies for managing vertical transportation. Safety is an essential prerequisite: if you don’t get this right, nothing else matters.

2. Give people space

This is a barrier that we need to remove. Apart from the immediate need for social distancing, the combination of unassigned desks and extreme density is one of the biggest reasons why some people do not want to go to the office. It is a trend that has perhaps run its course, believes Gensler co-CEO Diane Hoskins. “Health is a new lens with which to view the workplace, and this will force new approaches, including more sensible density,” she says. “But beyond health, from an individual effectiveness or business sense, our pre-Covid research had begun to reveal that densification may not have been fulfilling some of our fundamental functional needs in the office.”

When Gensler surveyed US office workers during lockdown, it found only 12% didn’t want to return to the office at all. There was no one type of person in that group, but what many of this cohort had in common was that they did not have a desk of their own before the pandemic, and that they found this a very uncomfortable experience. “In many cases, it is more of an indictment of the workplace rather than that they love working from home,” says Hoskins. “It is because the office was not a good place to be.” In fact, Gensler’s workplace surveys have shown a decline in workplace effectiveness over the last few years, which correlates strongly with increasing density. “We may be getting more people to come into the office, but we are not necessarily creating a better workplace for them. I think we will still see the open office plan, but with different configurations that ensure people have enough space between them. For those who come into the office every day, they should have dedicated individual work areas.”

"We may be getting more people to come into the office, but we are not necessarily creating a better workplace for them"

Diane Hoskins, Gensler

3. Be clear about what the office is for

To truly be a destination for work, the office needs to be better adapted to what it actually involves. What we call “work” encompasses many types of activity, from tasks that require head-down concentration, to writing emails and making calls, to collaborating, brainstorming or informal social interaction with colleagues. So while we need our own space, we also need different types of space. At home, we’ve been able to choose where to sit – albeit between limited options – and it will be hard to give this up. The best activity-based working environments cater for the cadences of the working day, offering a variety of well-designed, freely accessible spaces.

“Being able to move around and have a different outlook or ergonomic situation or connection to the life of the office, that really changes the quality of the workspace,” says Ron Bakker, founding director of PLP Architecture in London. He designed The Edge in Amsterdam, one of the world’s smartest and most sustainable office buildings, which not only has a range of settings but synchronizes with employees’ calendars to make sure they can always find the space they need. “After a few years, we’ve found that people plan their day differently and make very conscious decisions about their diaries and workloads.” Occupier Deloitte has also recorded a 55% drop in absenteeism compared to its other Dutch offices.

"Being able to move around really changes the quality of the workspace"

Ron Bakker, PLP Architecture

Noise is probably the greatest source of stress in the open-plan environment, whether you’re struggling to concentrate amid the chatter or making calls against a backdrop of aggressive silence. Zoning should take acoustics into account, says Seiko Kurokawa, a designer at WSP in New Zealand, but employers also have to make it clear what’s appropriate where. “It’s really a matter of education and etiquette, and working together to support each other,” she says. “That needs to be discussed too when we come back to the office.”

Given the choice, many will stay home for solo focused work. Offices will still need some dedicated quiet areas for those who can’t, but the balance may flip. Why not take out some of the desks and dedicate open-plan areas to collaboration instead, suggests Heather Smith, national director of workplace strategies at Architecture49 in Canada. “We will hopefully see the end of 15 people packed into a meeting room, and maybe that type of meeting will be conducted in a more open environment,” she says. “I think we have to fight the urge to put up walls and barriers and dividers. Loads of us are desperate to get back to the office because we thrive on the social interaction, but if there are 10 people there instead of 50 and you can’t even see them, we’re not getting what we need.”

But how do we know that the people we want to see will even be in the office that day? We will need to plan our visits more carefully to get the greatest value from them – reinforcing the idea of the office as an appointment destination. Smart technologies can help with this, a topic that we’ll be considering in the next part of the series.

"Loads of us are desperate to get back to the office because we thrive on the social interaction ... We have to fight the urge to put up walls and barriers and dividers"

Heather Smith. Architecture49

4. Give people the things they can’t get at home …

This is a relatively easy win because the office already has a lot to offer that remote working can’t match. Not everyone has the space or set-up to work from home productively, and few enjoy enterprise-grade technology and big-budget equipment. “Giving people really great hardware like 3D printers or fantastic large computer screens is definitely a real attractor, especially for young graduates,” says Carolyn Solley, senior associate at Hassell in Brisbane. “They are often motivated by a really cool workplace because it becomes like an extension of their own personal brand.”

Another pull is having a great restaurant, coffee shop or juice bar, or failing that, inviting a rotating cast of local caterers to serve on site. This potential for novelty is the office’s most compelling USP, particularly in downtown locations: “People crave variety – in their day, in their week and in their scenery,” says Solley. “It can be a bit one-note doing the same thing, day in day out, in the same environment. Mix it up a bit and offer something others might not.”

5. …And give them the things they can too

Returning office workers will be reluctant to give up their home comforts, and less willing to endure sub-optimal conditions or situations. So to encourage people to make the effort, offices need to make it as easy as possible for them to feel good while they’re there.

"Young graduates are often motivated by a really cool workplace because it becomes like an extension of their own personal brand"

Carolyn Solley, Hassell
Natural light, fresh air and greenery are all typically more abundant in our homes than in commercial buildings and districts. For many, the positive impact of these simple things on their health and wellbeing has been a lockdown revelation. Similarly, daily exercise has become a habit that some will be keen to keep up, while others will choose to walk or cycle to avoid the risks associated with crowded public transit. Facilities that enable and encourage healthier lifestyles create additional reasons to come in, from secure bike parking and end-of-trip showers and changing rooms to fitness studios and classes on site. Building owners can also help to make offices essential lifestyle destinations in other ways too, by offering services such as child care, dry cleaning, parcel delivery hubs, or even personal shopping.

It’s not enough to look more like home, there must be a culture of genuine flexibility too – greater tolerance of personal calls, for example, or an acceptance that people may take breaks at different times of day. “We have devices that mean we’re at our jobs nearly 24/7, so it’s only fair that the home should be allowed to infiltrate the workplace,” says William Johnston, structural engineer and senior director with WSP in Canada. Smith agrees: “We may not be able to recreate all the comforts of home, but people are still going to want to feel that sense of connection back to their families. It’s really important that organizations continue to evolve the culture and clearly articulate that.”

"We have devices that mean we’re at our jobs nearly 24/7, so it’s only fair that the home should be allowed to infiltrate the workplace"

William Johnston, WSP

6. Maximize social interaction

More than ever, seeing other people will be the biggest reason to go to the office. A lot of the social life of an office is organic, but employers and building owners can nurture it by creating more opportunities for people to cross paths and get together. A well-publicized programme of social events is another easy win, but it’s the meetings we don’t plan that can really make the workplace into a genuine destination.

Above all, the office should be a place of inspiration, says Johnston: “Particularly in the knowledge industries, and as more and more tasks become automated, we need to create an environment that stimulates creativity and great ideas. We need dynamic, varied spaces that invoke curiosity and encourage people to think.” One way to support this is by prioritizing connectivity in the design. “This includes visual connections, such as atriums or common areas, but also areas that support accidental connectivity – bumping into people that you may not otherwise have encountered, learning what they do, and discovering that you can help each other.”

PLP’s office is one big space, defined by a 100m corridor through the middle. “It’s almost designed so that you do meet people,” says Bakker. “You go past all the different teams, and there are breakout spaces and all the printers and photocopiers in the middle. It’s from all these chance encounters that we have progress and innovation and creativity. It’s not just about communicating and exchanging ideas but also fresh ways of thinking. Group dynamics are a big part of how we function as a species, and we don’t quite get that on Zoom.”

These ad hoc interactions will be even more prized in the post-Covid workplace, says Kurokawa. “The typical office will shift to become more like a coworking space, where we’re more conscious of opportunities to collaborate with other people,” she says. Organizations might choose to capitalize on this by integrating actual coworking spaces where external collaborators can set up for the day, or by equipping front-of-house areas to host evening events. “There will still need to be private areas to secure sensitive equipment and information, but offices may have more layers of semi-public and multipurpose spaces.” The most compelling office destinations will not only be a magnet for employees, but for clients, partners and the wider community too.

"The typical office will shift to become more like a coworking space, where we’re more conscious of opportunities to collaborate with other people"

Seiko Kurokawa, WSP

7. Become a virtual destination too

Creating a seamless experience for virtual visitors enhances the office’s status as a physical destination, both directly and indirectly. With more people working from home and less business travel, almost every meeting will have virtual participants. Offices need to bring them into the room so everyone can contribute on an equal footing, as we’ve been able to do on video calls during lockdown. So collaboration technology needs to be intuitive and work flawlessly – something we’ll look at in the next part of the series.

“I think we will start to see office meeting environments that look more like television studios and less like drab conference rooms with a camera stuck in the corner,” says Narada Golden, vice president at WSP Built Ecology in New York. “Virtual participants need to see and hear everyone in the room. To do this you need great lighting, good acoustics, engaging backgrounds and cameras that allow you to actually see everyone’s face.”

If the vibrancy of the office environment comes across onscreen, those who’ve dialled in may be inspired to come in person next time – looking good on social media is, after all, a cornerstone of FOMO. But this will also help companies to reduce their carbon footprint, believes Golden, by reducing the need for employees to travel: “I love meeting people face-to-face but it would be wonderful to know that I don’t have to commute or fly just because the virtual experience is so limiting.”

Meanwhile, adopting the protocols that have made online meetings successful can also make the in-person experience better. Making sure that everyone has a chance to speak, for example, or using the chat window for questions can make it easier for those who are less comfortable breaking into the discussion.

Could virtual workers be integrated into the physical space in other ways too? “It would be great to walk over to one of our design teams in the office and see that every member is active and present, even if some of them are working remotely that day,” adds Golden. “Perhaps there is a beacon coloured red, yellow or green like your Skype status that you can tap to talk to them. That ability to have informal quick interactions is really helpful, but the conversation can stall if a colleague is working remotely and you have to walk back to your desk to patch them in. The office should be a place that creates maximum surface area between people, and to do this we need a fluid physical-virtual space.”

In the longer term, making virtual participants more visible might actually encourage the more introverted to come into the office – potentially one of the toughest groups to entice back. “When you’re working from home, there’s an onus to share your work more consciously,” points out Solley. “You have to reach out, set a meeting, whereas in the workplace it can be a little more natural. Some introverts may want to stay home longer and some extroverts might be ready to get back to the workplace – but who knows if that will turn out to be the case in reality?” In other words, when you can no longer hide at home, it may be more comfortable to blend into the crowd.

To reassert its value and retain its status, the office will have to work hard to meet new expectations and balance conflicting demands – and it will have to take full advantage of technology to do so. Smart building solutions can support health, convenience and comfort, while emerging collaboration tools will leverage augmented and virtual reality to supply the connection, novelty and excitement that we all crave in our working lives. We’ll be exploring these in the next part of the series.

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