Predicting the future is a notoriously difficult business. Nostradamus got away with it by being supremely ambiguous but if you need to be more specific it makes sense to keep timescales tight and start from where you are today. You’ll be unsurprised then, to find that this blog is not about the workspace of 2030, but what will happen in the next 12 months. Considering that the last six months have turned how we work upside down; and things are unlikely to go back to how they were, we need to plan realistically for all that this implies.
I have previously written about the importance of the office. How the tech giants were spending billions creating campuses to entice people to spend more time working collaboratively in one physical space. The world has changed somewhat since then, but those organisations are now well placed to adapt because the workspaces they created are flexible enough for people to work in the ways they want, plus they have the potential to adapt to meet these needs as they evolve.
Speaking to colleagues and friends, what has been obvious is that everyone’s experience of lockdown has been different. It varies wildly depending on factors such as your family circumstances, the environment you work in, the stage you’re at in your career, not to mention the type of work you do. People are social animals and the importance of that should not be overlooked. After the initial enthusiasm for remote working, organisations are also starting to find out that it is not a panacea. Problems can take longer to resolve when people aren’t physically together. New staff and those at the start of their careers aren’t developing and integrating as quickly as they would if they were office-based. Video meeting fatigue is a real thing and productivity is starting to wane as hopes of a quick end to this situation dissipates.
At present, most organisations are not rushing staff back to the workplace. Strategies around the numbers that should return are also being hampered by external factors like childcare and public transport arrangements. Whatever the actual numbers turn out to be, the workplace of the near future needs to be able to flex to accommodate this. Designs, once the exclusive reserve of tech giants and media companies, will need to become a reality for the more ‘traditional’ organisations.
Accepting that it’s unlikely we will ever return to the workplace in the numbers we used to, how do our workspaces need to change? In an article on the BBC website Barclays’ boss Jes Staley has said that the pandemic “has led to a rethink of the bank’s long term ‘location strategy’”. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he predicts that 50% of the company’s employees could be working remotely within the next five to 10 years. It makes sense to me then that more focus is put on regional offices. The headquarters then become a hub: a central location to bring people together, host customers and hold executive meetings. For this to work, however, we need to re-think how those spaces are used and what experience they offer:
- Collaboration with remote participants will be the norm
- Office spaces must better support new hybrid workstyles
- Buildings need to be smarter to adapt to this changing use and support sustainability targets
- Employees will need help to make the most of the physical spaces as much as they will the technologies that underpin them
As companies learn to trust staff to be able to know where and how to work most efficiently, there will be a step change in people’s work/life balance. For the organisations themselves there are obvious benefits in a reduction in office space, fewer expenses, happier and more productive people. Customers too are accepting that most things can be done remotely and spending three hours, each way, travelling to an hour-long meeting is not the best use of anyone’s time.
There are investments that need to be made now to make the workspace safe and begin the return. But the long-term investments need to be in changing how our workspaces operate for the continued benefit of everyone. The office will undoubtedly still be important and play a crucial role in both colleague wellbeing and organisational success. Workspaces will have to adapt to this to thrive and businesses will have to look at investing to compete. The environment you create will be key in both attracting and retaining talent as well as creating an advantage against your competition.
Don’t try and predict the future. Plan and invest for what you know will happen. Prioritise those that need to return, make investments to allow those that want to return to do so and ensure that those working for home don’t suffer from a degraded user experience. Unless of course, like Nostradamus, you have foreseen the apocalypse in which case you have other things to worry about.