As some non-essential workers begin to return to the workplace after a year of working from home, they are discovering a museum-like scene: offices frozen in time. As reported in this Washington Post story, some offices look a bit like Pompeii after the Vesuvius eruption. Dusty post-it notes and coffee cups sit on desks where they were left a year ago. Break-room refrigerators hold months-old food. Calendars still show March 2020 appointments.
And yet, through the weeks and then the months that piled up into a year or more of office absence, we somehow continued with the work we were doing when we were all sent home. How is it possible that businesses kept functioning productively, remotely, while their offices became dioramas of The Early-2020 Workplace?
Information technology is the answer, of course. When a business has converted from paper-based operations to digital format, work from home (WFH) isn’t just possible, it’s practical. A remotely-accessible database of imaged documents keeps the wheels of business moving.
Employees have discovered the benefits of WFH and they’re unwilling to give them up. The scheduling flexibility of WFH has improved staffers’ work-life balance even as their productivity has increased. Nevertheless, in-person collaboration and culture are sorely missed, and valuable professional relationships are suffering. The hybrid office is predicted to become the dominant workstyle as we move toward a post-pandemic world.
McKinsey researcher Dr. Susan Lund, quoted in Fast Company, states that the return to work will emphasize the kind of social interaction that supports collaborative work. Face-to-face team projects will happen in business offices. Individual tasks or extended heads-down work will be done at home.
With 68% of CEOs planning to downsize office space, design and FM professionals have an opportunity to reshape offices into updated team-supportive offices. IT, too, is part of the design picture; with IT imaging a business’s paper documents to a digital data source, less filing space is needed, making room for more teamwork in less total area.
Tomorrow’s hybrid-office-space design will emphasize togetherness, encouraging what the Harvard Business Review terms “unstructured collaboration:” those water-cooler moments that lead to fruitful connections and breakthroughs. The new offices will probably look rather different than the work spaces we walked away from a year ago. Will anyone preserve a piece of the museum-quality time capsule of the old offices? If you are returning to work in old Pompeii, we’d like to hear from you.
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2020 was an experiment in necessity – how to shape or reshape the workplace, whether vacant, partially occupied, or fully occupied. As we move into the post-pandemic world, what are the workplace changes that look like they’re here to stay?
As we now know, mandated work-from-home (WFH) turned out to be far more productive than expected. The results of a recent survey by Upwork echoed an earlier Stanford study that showed increased productivity and job satisfaction among WFH employees. At the height of WFH in 2020, nearly two-thirds of staffers were working remotely, but Upwork estimates that the number of WFH employees will settle in the 20- 25% range in coming years.
The benefits of productivity, employee satisfaction, and real estate savings are solidifying the value of the hybrid workplace. Although a few organizations were experimenting with hybrid-style offices before the pandemic, it has now become the standard for many businesses.
With the establishment of the hybrid office come challenges and opportunities.
A significant challenge in the hybrid workplace: information access. Employees still need access to office-located documents on the days they are working remotely. Removing paper documents from the office means the risk of damage or loss. But without access to the information in the documents, workers lose all their WFH productivity gains. Imaging overcomes the challenge of data access; imaged documents, and the data they contain, are accessed securely from anywhere.
The hybrid workplace offers an opportunity to re-fashion the function and design of the office. The soul-crushing mid-century-modern cubicle farm is out. The much-despised open office plan is also out, due to productivity and health concerns. In its place is, appropriately, a hybrid design that offers some separation and privacy but also includes large spaces for collaboration. Hoteling will still be part of the picture, but staffers will reserve workspaces based on activity rather than mere available space.
Interior structures such as smart lockers will furnish separation and traffic routing. At the same time, they will provide an essential storage function for staffers who split their time between the office and WFH. Other structures like the prototype sound reduction panels from the University of Washington and architecture firm NBBJ also offer privacy and a visually interesting design.
Scientist Jonathan Schattke said, “Necessity is the mother of invention, but its father is creativity.” The hybrid workplace may have come into its own out of necessity, but its form and function reflect creative solutions, supporting workers with appropriate technology. The new hybrid worklife is here to stay.
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The pandemic has been a change accelerator in many ways, but few areas have seen more rapid revisions than the workplace. Two trends were already gaining traction before 2020: the open office plan was being reworked to include some private spaces, and work-from-home (formerly termed telework) was spreading beyond a few narrow industry sectors.
Now these trends are rapidly becoming the norm, and they are bringing with them a host of design, operations, and corporate-culture questions.
The End of the Open Plan Office?
A recent survey of tech companies with open plan offices found that fewer than half expected to stick with their open-plan layouts after the pandemic. Yet even with the additional space requirements of private or semi-private workspaces, more than 80% of these companies expected to need less office space in the next 18 months. More than half anticipated entirely eliminating some of their office space.
For designers and facilities managers, these forecasts require a re-working of office space. Reduced storage space calls for space-saving high density storage systems. The noise reduction and privacy of semi-enclosed spaces call for dividing structures like touchless locker systems. Moves to smaller spaces call for office relocation services.
Is WFH is Here to Stay?
Work-from-home (WFH) is now a permanent fixture in workplace operations. Numerous surveys and metrics have shown the productivity advantages of WFH, and businesses are adopting technology such as document imaging, video conferencing, and digital whiteboarding that makes WFH practical.
With the success of WFH, managers and designers are now beginning to ask the big corporate culture question: What is the purpose of an office?
What About Corporate Culture?
As John Seabrook (New Yorker Magazine) writes, this question brings up other questions: “Is [the office] a place for newbies to learn from experienced colleagues? A way for bosses to oversee shirkers? A platform for collaboration? A source of friends and social life? A respite from the family? A reason to leave the house?” The answer, to one degree or another, is “Yes.”
The hybrid office, combining WFH with flexible in-office time, is right on trend. Hybrid workspaces help businesses reduce their office space footprint while giving WFH staff a needed dose of in-person interaction.
However, for a hybrid office to function well, corporate culture has to change many of its former patterns. Many employees worry that decreased “face time” will damage their peer and mentor relationships and diminish their opportunities for advancement. Improved transparency, communication, training, and especially diversity and inclusion policies will build employees’ trust that they are visible, supported, and recognized for their contributions.
Taken together, the trends of the Covid change accelerator can seem overwhelming. National Office Systems is a strategic partner helping you plan and implement workplace designs and technology to adapt to the changes.
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Who doesn’t want to be in a good neighborhood – one that’s aesthetically pleasing, has a controlled traffic flow, with great neighbors close but not too close? The office “neighborhood” is predicted to become the primary workplace model for the new hybrid workstyle.
The hybrid workplace, combining a flexible schedule, WFH (work-from-home), and in-office work, sprang up as a way to reduce the risk of covid transmission. It has delivered unexpected benefits: Surprising productivity increases, along with reduced real estate overhead.
Even with a covid vaccine in sight, the hybrid office isn’t likely to disappear any time soon. According to research this year by workplace design consultants Gensler, 52% of workers want to continue dividing their time between home and office. Only 19% wanted to work in the office full time.
Now designers are defining the shape of the ideal hybrid workplace, and the “neighborhood” format seems to answer all the design criteria. Work activities are clustered into “zones” based on the need for privacy or collaboration, quiet head-down tasks, or work involving conference calls or in-person conversations.
Elizabeth Lowrey of Elkus Manfredi Architects describes the hybrid office neighborhoods as incorporating support tools for remote workers (video conference equipment and imaged documents), and flexibility to manage future workplace change. She emphasizes the need to make the hybrid office a magnet. If the office is a choice, not a mandate, it has to be an attractive one.
Neighborhoods also have to be defined physically. As Robert Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Guiding foot traffic through the office is especially important for maintaining social distance and for preserving quiet in heads-down neighborhoods.
One option for office boundaries and traffic is a locker structure. Modern lockers have customizable finishes to complement office furnishings, adding to the attractiveness of the workplace. Many include keyless touchless locks to reduce contagious touch surfaces.
And lockers provide essential storage for hybrid workplaces. Employees who aren’t in the office full time tend to bring a lot of stuff with them when they come into the office. Without an assigned workstation or office, all that stuff has to be stored somewhere.
The new hybrid workplace can be defined as a place where people feel welcomed, where they have supportive tech and a sense of social belonging, where their best work can be done. That sounds like a neighborhood we’d all like to live in.
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Like many familiar aspects of business life, the form and function of offices are undergoing rapid change to fit the new reality. Today’s challenges have been an opportunity for reflection and reinvention, in business as well as in our personal lives. As our business operations adapt to the new normal, office designs are shifting to accommodate new workstyles.
Hybrid offices are one example of a pre-Covid trend accelerated by the pandemic. WFH has been far more productive than expected, but teams still feel the need for face-to-face collaboration for certain tasks. Consulting firm Gensler describes the hybrid workplace as promoting collaboration through activity-based design, using advanced technology and unassigned seating within a hospitality-driven atmosphere. Teams work remotely, coming together in a hybrid office as required.
A few major organizations have been test-driving the hybrid office in a hub-and-spokes design. A centrally hub office in the city center provides room for larger group activities, while smaller outlying offices give support to WFH staff living nearby. Hybrid offices reduce office space in the expensive city center, while preserving a visible presence.
Repurposing office buildings’ lobbies is another new-normal trend. In a hub-and-spokes office, the spokes facilities can be integrated into the surrounding community, creating connections among WFH staffers, clients, and the neighborhood. Buildings’ public spaces offer a branding opportunity for tenants to underscore their community involvement, as well as a meeting destination for workers and visitors.
To ensure that these new workplaces function well, designers and office managers are applying the latest in digital technology.
WFH staff need access to project materials whether they’re at home, at a spoke office, or at the central hub. In the hybrid office, paper documents may be stored at the hub, with limited access. But imaged documents are accessible to remote workers no matter where they are. The paper originals remain safely stored in the hub office.
Touchless technology is another asset for the reshaped office. RFID-based apps enable safe touchless entry to secure areas. Touchless lockers provide personal storage for WFH workers traveling to spoke or hub offices. Designers can even use touchless lockers as a physical divider to guide foot traffic and maintain safe social distancing.
Gensler predicts that the new style of office building will be far less insular and self-contained, and far more responsible to its community through creating public spaces, support businesses, and a live-work-play environment. Technology that supports human capital will be the key to successful office design in the new reality.
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Museum designers have been working hard to change the musty, dusty reputation of museums, and RFID is helping with innovative applications. No longer is the hands-off “Night at the Museum” look the standard for U.S. museums. To attract new patrons, museums are bringing advanced technology to bear, including VR and RFID.
RFID in particular has been easy to adapt for new creative purposes. Many museums already use RFID to manage their collections, affixing unobtrusive RFID tags to art and artifacts. Doorway readers record when items are moved, whether from storage to exhibit, or from one room to another. Curators can check inventories as simply as walking into a room with an RFID scanner. Tags can be programmed to store a variety of data about the object: name, age, and collection information; restoration status; climatic requirements; maintenance schedule; and much more.
But beyond inventory management, RFID offers opportunities for interactive, immersive experiences for museum patrons. Some creative RFID applications:
- Washington, D.C.’s International Spy Museum uses RFID-enabled badges to let visitors take on a spy’s persona. Visitors test their espionage skills as the spy of their choice, and receive an online “debriefing” after their visit.
- Touring exhibit “The Science of Survival” allows visitors to make lifestyle choices in various sectors of the exhibit (transport, building, food and drink), collecting their answers via RFID entry badges. The results are compiled to forecast the future environmental impact of those choices in the year 2050.
- At the O2 in London, visitors at the British Music Experience “collect” their favorite items on museum-issued RFID cards. In-depth information about their favorites is then sent to them in a follow-up email.
- Visitors to the Horsens Prison Museum in Denmark can choose a specific guard or inmate to learn about – for example, a prisoner who escaped by digging a 59-foot tunnel. Visitors’ RFID badges activate videos and images related to each visitor’s particular subject, for a customized experience.
From museum managers’ point of view, RFID ‘s enhanced visitor experience helps to define and reinforce the museum’s brand, build visitor loyalty, and create publicity opportunities. From the museum patrons’ perspective, RFID creates a visitor experience that is far more personalized and immersive than the old-school museum walk-through. It’s fascinating, it’s imaginative, and most important, it’s just plain fun!
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