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    Reinventing the workplace after
    COVID-19

    Smart technology is the key to any future office scenario


    As the great pandemic of 2020 infiltrates every corner of our lives, there is one place perhaps more than any other that has been affected. This is the office building, the defining architectural typology of the past 100 years, whose very existence is now called into question. The global media is full of headlines like ”Death of the office” and ”The rise and fall of the office” as organizations struggle to reconcile a return to office working with strict new hygiene and social distancing rules.

     

    The key question is therefore not when we will return to the office, but how we will return to working within office buildings. Will post-pandemic workplaces start to resemble those familiar old offices of the 1980s with lots of cubicles and compartmentalization? Will occupancy levels in offices will be driven down significantly to keep returning workers at a safe distance from each other?

     

    Will the reception experience in most workplaces switch from coffee, corporate videos, and magazines to hand sanitizers, temperature checks, and face masks? Or will offices step up a level to become more amenity-based and event-based spaces for training, mentoring, innovation activities, and large face-to-face meetings rather than simply hosting routine daily work? In this last scenario, the office is reimagined as a high-end catalyst for social interaction and creativity, while the more routine stuff is done remotely.

     

    But while the debate on the future shape of the post-COVID-19 workplace looks set to run and run, there is one element that is unanimously agreed upon: smart technology will have a significant role to play in any future office scenario.

    Reimagining the future office


    Generally, there is a strong wish among workplace professionals globally not to let a good crisis go to waste. As Kay Sargent, director of HOK’s global workplace practice explains, ”We’ve been handed a really unique, once-in-a-decade or maybe even once-in-a-career opportunity to think about what we really want the office to be, and about how we create spaces that are human-centric. If we end up going backwards, we’ll be doing everyone a disservice.”
     

    Going backwards might be to continue with real estate trends which have seen offices everywhere move to higher densities with a squeeze of space for employees over the past twenty years—a difficult position from which to begin practicing social distancing. The big push in workplace design has also been to engineer social interaction and serendipitous encounters at every turn through the design of the environment—to bring people together at every opportunity.
     

    Collision, collaboration, and cohesion within the workforce remain fundamentally important to core business objectives in the current pandemic, but instead of using space as a mechanism to enforce them, we are instead using digital tools such as Zoom, Teams, and Skype. This is not to say that all collaboration can be done remotely, however. Nicole Hammer, a smart building strategist at engineers WSP in Colorado said, ”You can facilitate some really amazing sessions via Skype, Teams, and Zoom, and there’s a lot that can happen to enrich the dialogue, but to drive innovation and especially culture forwards, we still need to have face-to-face collaboration.”

    We’ve been handed a really unique opportunity to think about what we really want the office to be, and about how we create spaces that are human-centric.”


    - Kay Sargent, director of global WorkPlace practice, HOK

    Backtracking on the open office


    This means that the physical office still plays a core role in driving innovation and culture within a company. Before the pandemic, many organizations implemented a version of the open plan concept which was more about optimizing real estate assets and controlling costs than anything else; often, such an approach would lead to an environment where only 60 percent of the total workforce could work at any one time. 
     

    But these ratios are the antithesis of new social distancing measures—the goalposts have moved. After COVID-19, the metric is likely to flip in that only 60 percent of available space will be used at any one time. The other 40 percent of space available will be used to enforce safe social distancing within the building. The post-pandemic workplace is calling for a more strategic use of real estate to keep employees safe but still ensure they have the right tools and interactions to do their best work. To achieve this, any strategy must be underpinned by smart infrastructure and big data—which is why some commentators now believe that the argument for investing in smart buildings has advanced further in the past three months than in the past five years.

    Smart infrastructure holds the key


    Generally, tech systems and services have been the big winners in this pandemic as even those companies which are the most reluctant to engage with remote working have been forced to give it a go. Organizations that made the transition to connected IoT buildings before COVID-19 struck will undoubtedly have an advantage when returning to the workplace. While changing people’s behavior away from innately gathering and socializing in the office will take time and investment in culture change, implementing a smart infrastructure can provide the data and insight to help inform how people and design can work together in the ”new” office.
     

    As business priorities adapt to evolving circumstances, a digital building infrastructure provides a platform to support remote services while also collecting data across entire building portfolios. This becomes particularly important when it comes to understanding the occupancy of a building, or a series of buildings. Implementation of smart technology in buildings will intensify as organizations become dependent on real-time data to understand peak office times and where the higher-risk areas are within the building.

    Utilization data to the fore 


    Currently there is much animated design discussion about fitting out workspaces with cubicles, plexiglass screens, and carpet tiles that change color the closer you get to the next person’s desk. But the real hard currency in the post-COVID-19 workplace will be occupancy and utilization data. Data can inform building managers of people’s proximities to each other and calculate the maximum occupancy in that floor, taking into consideration social distancing regulations.
     

    Occupancy data can show hotspots within the building and create alerts if there are too many people in one area. This can be done by altering the algorithms within the building to reduce the available space to ensure that people flow is maintained at a safe level. Such data can also help companies to become more energy-efficient and lessen their environmental impact: don’t forget that behind the shadow of the coronavirus, the shadow of the climate crisis hasn’t gone away.
     

    It is likely that a paradigm shift will occur in the short to medium term in post-COVID-19 workplaces, whereby building performance is not measured by the old space efficiency and intensification metrics but by new standards of occupier comfort and safety. This will be the priority for organizations. Once it is established, they can move onto the next phase of office redesign, which will incorporate social cohesion and interaction back into the workplace. As June Koh, EMEA Director of Workplace at AECOM, suggests, ”Workplaces will be increasingly centred on developing a community base—virtual and physical—that supports comfort, health, well-being, creativity, productivity, and job satisfaction.”

     

    However things pan out, one thing is certain: organizations have to work smarter—and their buildings must become smarter too.

    About the authors

    Jeremy Myerson headshot
    Professor Jeremy Myerson is director and co-founder of WORKTECH Academy. Jeremy holds the Helen Hamlyn Chair of Design at the Royal College of Art and is also a Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford.
    Kasia Maynard headshot
    Kasia Maynard is a writer and researcher for WORKTECH Academy. Trained as a journalist with the Press Association, Kasia researches and forecasts trends in workplace covering topics such as design, place, technology, people, and culture.

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