One thing is for certain in our post-Covid world: the concept of the office has been irrevocably altered and will not return to what was previously considered normal. But this may not be a bad thing. Covid has revealed a whole new world of possibility where the work world is concerned, and will quite likely signify a leap in the direction of a more efficient, more humane workplace – designed to benefit its occupants, rather than the other way round.
Before we explore the changes, let’s remind ourselves where we were before Covid-19.
THE PRE-COVID WORKPLACE
The workplace as a paradigm is in a constant state of evolution, responding to the way people work, which is ultimately about how businesses work. Before Covid hit, the world’s workforce was already moving towards being more mobile and technology-reliant, and we were already embracing digitalisation, automation, robotics and AI.
The workplace was also getting smaller, with the average square metre of workplace per employee reducing year by year as hot-desking, flexible working and activity-based work styles gained favour, driven by improved connectivity and virtual collaboration tools like MS Office, Asana and Google Business, as well as increasing real estate costs.
New workplace design was responding more and more to the connection between employee wellbeing and business productivity, as a growing body of evidence on neurological and physiological effects of the work environment on cognitive ability, fuelled the popularity of biophilia and healthy green buildings. Add to that growth of coworking and increased adoption of the hybrid workplace model and you have an already fertile ground for change.
None of the above has disappeared. Covid has accelerated the evolution along this same trajectory while revealing new challenges.
The local workplace pre-Covid’s arrival was not very evolved in terms of Work From Home
For knowledge workers in South Africa, we’ve gone (quite suddenly) from a predominantly office-based scenario pre-Covid to a predominantly home-based scenario during the lockdown.
A recent local workplace study* revealed that before the lockdown, 57% of South African businesses had issued less than a quarter of their staff with laptops for remote work. Home internet availability and quality have also played a role in the pace of evolution. Our workforce simply hasn’t been equipped.
The South African workplace post-Covid’s arrival has highlighted possibilities and detractors
Covid forced the world into the largest mobile-working and digital transformation in history. We are now seeing a massive increase in the number of employees who are working remotely and are able to continue doing so.
Worldwide studies are showing that for certain tasks and types of work, Work From Home (WFH) can be as productive, if not more so, than working from a “traditional” office. This is, however, a short-term result and is not conclusive in terms of longer-term impact on employee engagement, productivity and business resilience.
The same studies also reveal that the WFH experience is not beneficial to all. Despite being more digitally savvy in general, the younger generation, especially, is having a less favourable WFH experience, as they are more likely to live in smaller or shared spaces, and therefore don’t have access to the same quality of the home-working environment that their older colleague, or boss, might. They are also missing out on the inherent learning and growth that comes with exposure to more experienced colleagues, as well as the growth of personal social and professional networks.
We are seeing that overall, people do want to return to the office, or a form of the office, in some capacity, whether it’s for the social component or to re-establish the boundaries between home and worklife.
This is not surprising given that in-person interaction is also vital for building trust and strengthening the culture of any organisation, which is vital for any business to survive.
THE WORKPLACE POST-COVID
The post-Covid workplace keeps its foundational purpose: to provide space and facilities for employees to get their work done, whether as individuals or teams. It does, however, entrust employees with more autonomy than ever before. It embraces a new set of design functionalities and human behaviours in response to new knowledge and forms of disease. And it incorporates a higher level of workplace management, powered by technology and policy, to efficiently support a more dynamic workforce and a more focused work environment.
What this could look like, essentially, is less time spent at the office, but a higher level of functionality expected from it when we are there.
Shift to health and safety
Covid has highlighted some serious shortcomings in the design of our workplaces that were previously largely overlooked.
In returning to our workplaces, whether as an interim or permanent capacity, new functionalities and behaviours around the workplace are required, both to lessen the risk of disease, as well as to address occupants’ new-found anxieties. Some of these are now legislated and may at some point be waived; some are just good practice.
We’ve seen the office as we know it replanned to incorporate physical distancing, wider circulation routes, controlled entry points, and sanitising stations galore. We’ve seen our behaviour change in line with this, and we are reminded constantly of new workplace protocols to wash hands, keep distance, and limit the number of people in any contained area. The process of using a lift, for example, is completely transformed. Socially-distanced queueing, limiting capacity, finding ways to avoid touching the buttons, and hand sanitiser on both sides of the journey, are now the requirement.
Increased levels of cleaning and sanitisation, too, have become the accepted norm, and new practices around the cleanliness of office settings include the communication of these practices just as much as the practices themselves.
A much-overdue spotlight has been shone on the role building ventilation plays in employee health and wellbeing, and, new standards in air-conditioning filters and maintenance have been adopted, to everyone’s benefit.
There is also a new appreciation and recognition for fresh air and outdoor workspaces, which with our temperate climate, should be in ample supply in South Africa, especially in Green Star-certified buildings.
Environmentally-sustainable buildings, by their general nature, incorporate healthy indoor environments that encompass passive design (natural light, fresh air, etc) and low-emission materials – another benefit to the air quality of buildings – which stands them in good stead as attractive locations in a post-Covid world.
We expect more from our buildings in terms of their approach to occupant health and safety. The way we use them has also changed, along with our perceptions of what it means to feel safe and comfortable in a shared environment. Overall, a higher level of functionality, service and communication around building health and safety will be a standard requirement.
THE SHIFT TO HYBRID
The hybrid workplace model blends analogue and virtual participation. It’s a mix informed by people and team functionalities and ways of working. It’s essentially the mid-point between the two extremes of office or home, and the likely landing point for most workplaces going forward. While this model is not new, its adoption is becoming more mainstream.
The hybrid workplace gives employees a level of flexibility, allowing the incorporation of mobile working (WFH, or from wherever they may choose) as part of day-to-day work life. This way of working incorporates a blend of real-life as well as virtual interaction, from video conferences to virtual whiteboarding sessions to in-person collaborative sessions.
This could take various forms, for example, three days in the office, and two at home rotated to align with team members on certain days. It also opens doors to a more distributed workforce, located in further reaching areas, who may only come to the main office on occasion for specific tasks. There are multiple possibilities depending on the nature of the business, the work and the people.
The hybrid way of working allows more employee autonomy, and has been shown to lead to better employee health, wellbeing, and productivity. Of course, it also means less time commuting between home and work and thus fewer carbon emissions.
In this scenario, it makes sense to set up the workplace to have fewer settings (desks, meeting rooms, collaboration areas, etc) that are used on a shared basis. This requires a layer of workplace management to efficiently allocate and utilise available space and facilities without compromising employees’ ability to get work done. Software that brings real-time visibility and bookability to these elements is key. Plug-and-play technology with on-hand support is equally important.
Workplace amenities and technology overall will need to provide a friction-free experience if they are to support and not hinder employees’ limited time at the office. Time wasted trying to connect to a glitchy video conference or looking for a whiteboard marker at the start of a team session detracts from productivity. In a world where employees have the choice to work remotely or visit the office, the experience is paramount to attracting them back.
While less space and fewer settings might be a possibility in the hybrid workplace, it’s worth noting that a greater level of management and service will be required to successfully orchestrate this symphony of employee experience.
SO WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE US?
With an overall move away from full-time occupancy of the office, this central gathering place still plays a vital role in the life of a business or organisation. And while it may make sense to downsize and make use of shared settings and facilities, the functional expectation from our physical environments will be greater than before. The workplace will need to be seen to demonstrate care for the occupants while at the same time supporting a seamless workflow, allowing the focus to be on productivity and human connection.
This next step in the evolution of the office could be a positive step forward, benefiting overall human health and wellbeing, business efficiencies and of course playing a small but important role in reducing the impact on our environment.
Space Sense is a Johannesburg-based workplace consultancy that works with organisations to help them set up their spaces to enable high-performing teams and efficient operations. Space Sense is driven by Georgie Chennells, a workplace consultant with a background in architecture, communications and organisational dynamics.