“Return to work.” Many organizations are struggling to define what that will mean for physical space, for productivity, and for corporate culture in the post-pandemic world.
When office-based operations were forced to pivot to work-from-home (WFH) at the beginning of 2020, the hybrid workplace was in its infancy. It quickly became the preferred workstyle, balancing WFH and in-person office time. Offices were safer because there were fewer occupants at any given time, and social distancing was easy to maintain. WFH proved its value with increased productivity and employee satisfaction.
The hybrid office gives workers a welcome degree of flexibility they didn’t have in a traditional office setting. And yet it is an imperfect solution. Employees without assigned workspaces report feeling disconnected from the team and the organization. WFH requires technology and furnishings that may not be readily available in some workers’ homes. Less in-person time may have a negative effect on performance evaluations.
What are some of the options for space utilization and technology that will make the office workspace and the home workspace function smoothly together?
- High speed internet: Many employers are paying directly for their WFH workers’ high speed internet service. It goes without saying that productivity, whether in the office or at home, relies on fast internet speeds.
- Information accessibility: Especially in document-heavy industries, information in paper documents is less accessible than the data in digital documents. A database of searchable imaged documents provides WFH accessibility without the security risk of removing documents from the office. When workers are scheduled to be in the office, that same information is available without any time wasted searching through paper files.
- Productivity apps: From screen-break reminders, to instant-join shortcuts for virtual meetings, a host of new apps deliver productivity support for WFH and hybrid workplaces. There’s even an app that converts WFH “virtual commute time” into an opportunity for exercise or meditation, promoting employee wellness.
Physical space options:
- Smart lockers: Hybrid office workers arrive in the office with a lot of stuff, from laptops to lunches. Without assigned workspaces, they need secure personal storage. A smart locker gives them the storage they need, and it can be reserved remotely. An extra bonus: The customizable exteriors of lockers makes them an attractive design option.
- Mobile furnishings: Hybrid workers often need to collaborate with different groups on different days. With no fixed “address” in the office, collaboration or heads-down work becomes simple with modular mobile workstations which the user can wheel to the appropriate location. Some of these mobile workstations fit into home-office settings, too, for use by remote workers.
Flexible work spaces and flexible schedules are intrinsic to the hybrid workplace and a successful return to work. With such an array of technology options and office space options, hybrid offices can become the perfect solution for the post-pandemic world.
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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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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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Safety is on everyone’s mind these days. The same forces which have disrupted daily life is also disrupting the way facilities are designed, utilized, and maintained. Fast Company is forecasting that the hottest new job in commercial real estate and facilities management is the director of environmental health– a medical expert, preferably with expertise in infectious diseases.
The director of environmental health will be tasked with assessing the health risks posed by current operational systems and policies, and making recommendations for facility-wide changes that reduce health risks. However, individual landlords and tenants are going to be responsible to some degree for including health and safety elements within their own spaces.
Every office uses space differently. High-touch surfaces, traffic patterns, and distancing policies will have be designed to fit each tenant’s needs. Touchless technologyis already available for doors, electronic devices, and personal storage lockers. Touchless lockers with attractive design-friendly finishes can also be used as a separation structure to guide internal traffic, maintain social distance, and reduce contagion.
Also useful in social distancing are RFID wearables that alert staffers when they are too close to each other. RFID(radio frequency identification) is a mature, proven technology for asset management, from inventory control to document tracking to process management. It’s a simple matter to add RFID proximity wearables.
Angelo Bianco of Crocker Partners, a commercial real estate owner with 11 million square feet of office space, predicts that many commercial office space organizations will hire environmental health directors. A focus on enhanced health and safety systems could be a strong marketing advantage in the highly competitive commercial real estate industry. Additionally, having a medical expert on staff is a risk management strategy; owners and operators of commercial properties are protected from claims of health-related negligence.
Tenants, too, can derive some risk management benefits by installing hardware and furnishings specifically designed for workplace well-being. Although many businesses have learned that work-from-home is a productive and cost-effective workstyle, a hybrid of WFH and office is emerging as the new normal. As offices are repopulated, either part-time or full-time, health-oriented designs and policies are going to be the new future of facilities management.
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Touchless technology isn’t a twenty-first century innovation. Automatic sliding doors were ubiquitous long before the “Star Trek” set designers included them on The Enterprise. But now in the COVID-19 era, zero-touch technology has come to the forefront as one of the ways reopened businesses can reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Current research shows that the coronavirus enters the body through the mouth, eyes, and nose. One of the ways virus particles are carried to those entry points is by our own hands; we touch contaminated surfaces then unconsciously touch our faces.
Think of the number of surfaces you touch in the workplace: door handles, chair backs and arms, desktops, pens, notepads, keyboards. And that’s all before you go to the break room and pick up the coffee pot which may or may not have been touched by someone else who may or may not have clean hands. It’s enough to make us all germ-phobic!
Good news: New applications of touchless technology are helping us get back to work without spreading the coronavirus on high-touch surfaces. As reported in Fast Company, voice command technology is one solution that many designers are extending into new areas. Elevators, for example, can be controlled via voice command using technology that already exists. Another touch-free technology: Gesture readers. Retrofitted touchscreens can read gestures without a user actually touching the surface – a big help for retail and museum settings where touchscreens are in common use.
In offices, zero-touch technology is already available. Touchless lockers are one way to keep work areas both uncontaminated and uncluttered. Staffers use RFID-enabled ID badges to unlock their assigned lockers. When these lockers are configured into full height or counter height partitions, they control foot traffic and maintain social distance.
Voice technology, too, is finding its way into offices. Voice commands can link together computers, monitors, and conference systems for presentations and meetings. Presenters avoid manual contact with cables or keyboards.
Everyone is pledged to new cleanliness strategies to reduce the risk of virus transmission as businesses reopen. However, it’s not practical to disinfect every surface continually throughout the day. Zero-touch technologies like touchless lockers, voice commands, and gesture readers are helping to make safe reopenings a reality.
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