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    The future of the workplace

    5 “musts” for negotiating workplace change

    Changes in how companies conceive of the office, new expectations about what it should do for employees, and innovations in building tech are combining to drive a revolution that is transforming how work gets done—for the better.


    The COVID-19 pandemic is increasing the speed at which companies must adapt and change. At the same time that remote work has become a viable option for many, companies must now consider how to adjust their physical workspaces to conform to a post-pandemic “new normal.” Workplace change is no longer a nice-to-have—it’s a necessity. Companies now have the opportunity to transform their workspaces into safe, supportive, and appealing environments—into places to which employees want to travel every day, whether they’re required to or not.


    Here are five “musts” that companies should keep in mind as they negotiate the transition to a new way of working.

    1: Workplaces must promote employee engagement and holistic well-being

    The simple idea behind the office of the future is this: that happy, comfortable employees do more productive work, making the maximization of happiness and comfort a first-order goal of office “placemaking.”


    But because happiness and comfort are hard to define, companies will increasingly rely on standards and credentials to validate the extent to which their offices are “people-centric,” and to quantify just how good those offices make the people working in them feel.


    The Atlanta-based International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) manages the WELL certification, the global standard for human-centric spaces, which will play a significant role here. The certification outlines benchmarks relating to the provision of light, clean water, and clean air, and considers elements such as relaxation spaces that promote mental and emotional health.


    IWBI is now also sponsoring conversations around and developing strategies for workplace preparedness and resiliency in the COVID-19 era. As long as the threat of infection continues, happiness and comfort will depend in part on feeling safe, and in trusting that employers and building managers are taking appropriate and effective measures to protect their health and well-being.

    2: Workplaces must employ smart building technology

    The Internet of Things (IoT) continues to penetrate the world of work. Between 2014 and 2019, the proportion of businesses that use IoT tech grew from 13 percent to 24 percent. By 2023, the number of connected devices in use across the world will have almost tripled since 2018.


    At the office, connected devices now often serve as components of systems within integrated platforms that control office environments to make them as inhabitant-friendly as possible. As they do so, these sensor-equipped devices collect data and beam it back to AI-powered analytical applications, which building managers can use to for insight in how to run things better.


    One way to think of a smart building platform is as a collection of verticals: a ventilation system vertical, a window system vertical, a heating system vertical, a lighting system vertical. But in a well-designed smart building platform, these verticals don’t function in isolation: they share data, and can trigger one another based on sensed conditions or combinations of factors. Taken as a whole, a well-designed smart building functions like a responsive machine—a machine for which data serves as both lubricant and fuel, and which human managers can control from an integrated dashboard accessible on a tablet or other such device. 


    When it comes to what such a smart system can do, the sky’s the limit. To give just one example, embedded sensor technology can keep track of temperatures in various areas of an office building as the sun tracks across the sky. As it receives that temperature information, the window system can respond accordingly, closing or opening blinds as necessary. At the same time, the lighting system can respond to what it’s “hearing” from the data, dimming office light levels when the amount of available daylight crosses a certain threshold. Likewise, the heating system can lower its output, keeping a windowed space from getting too warm and saving on energy costs.

    3: Workplaces must be flexible and adaptable

    The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many companies and their employees to work from home. One powerful result of this shift is the growing acceptance of the idea that the office doesn’t necessarily have to be a defined and static place—a location in an office building in which one spends the majority of each workday. Instead, the “office” can exist as a psychic space wherever workers possess reliable technologies to connect them with coworkers, supervisors, customers, clients, and others. 


    “Office as a service” is the phrase that describes this new model—and, “virtual” though this model might be, companies might apply it to improving the physical office spaces to which workers will almost certainly return on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis. 


    When the office is no longer thought of as a static location, it becomes something malleable that companies can better shape to employees’ needs. Workspaces can move beyond the open plan office to feature multiple zones: for individual work, for relaxation, for meetings big or small. Technology can make these spaces fluid and adjustable: by modifying its lighting regime and layout, a relaxation area becomes a great place for a team brainstorming session—or for a Friday-afternoon employee happy hour. Such layout changes will be easier to do when furniture and other equipment is ingeniously modular. 


    Space might not in itself determine corporate culture, but it has a measurable effect. A supple, responsive physical environment can help promote a supple, responsive corporate culture.

    4: Workplaces must incorporate nature

    It would be hard to find an environment more divorced from the natural world than the traditional office: a sometimes windowless zone of artificial lighting and recirculated air, an “inside” sealed against the “outside.” 


    But the growth in the number of green buildings testifies to the fact that designers have recognized the folly of divorcing employees from nature for a significant percentage of their waking lives. The “biophilic” office promises to become standard in the future, integrated natural elements specifically to improve the well-being of both individual workers and the company as a whole. 


    Terraces, accessible rooftops, façades and walls that allow comfortable levels of light to penetrate, indoor and outdoor gardens: these are some of the things that the biophilic office can offer. With solar power, rainwater harvesting, and other renewable resources, such workplaces will generate less air and water pollution. Its ventilation systems will eliminate dust (and perhaps even viral matter) from the air. It will be built of recycled or reclaimed materials. It will be quieter. And it will be aesthetically appealing, which will itself provide an emotional benefit to its users.

    5: Workplaces must promote deep inclusion and personalization

    The world has come a long way in making its spaces viable for the disabled, the elderly, and others with accessibility issues.


    The office of the future will continue this progress, as providing access becomes integral to planning. We’ll see such innovations big and small as chairs with easily grabbable handles, elevator doors that can stay open longer when necessary, better designed staircase handrails, and bright pictographic office navigation signs and other materials.


    IoT tech will allow individualized conditions from workstation to workstation, depending on what that station’s inhabitant needs or wants. The workstations of those with weaker vision might require more intense light; so might those of people with perfect vision whose work requires precision work with small parts.


    Across the workplace, human-centric lighting will make conditions better for everyone, creating a baseline of comfort. Lighting that supports human functioning will become the standard. Smart lighting systems might deliver appropriate doses of wakefulness-making blue light during the morning, then transition into a more calming spectrum in the afternoon—a benefit for all workers, whether they’re physically challenged or not.

    About the author

    Headshot of Peter Duine, Global Subsegment Director for Offices, Signify
    Peter Duine is Global Subsegment Director for Offices at Signify. He joined Philips 26 years ago as an engineer in the Research Laboratories. Peter moved to the lighting division 16 years ago as an optical engineer, and was a pioneer in developing light engines and drivers as systems for general lighting applications.

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