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    The big shift in workplace “presence”

    Workspaces will become multi-dimensional, omni-channel, and much more connected

    We know the global pandemic stopped the clock on office life and, even as companies plot their return to the workplace, we’ve accepted that the working world will not be going back to the way it was before. But what is less well understood is the effect of the coronavirus crisis on what it means to be “present” at work. A reimagined idea of presence promises to be one of the most fundamental shifts to emerge from the pandemic. It is also one of the most underappreciated—especially in relation to its impact on the way office buildings are designed and run.

    Before COVID-19 disrupted the global economy, there was a commonly held understanding of what it meant to be “present” at work—it typically meant daily attendance at a particular office building. There was even a term—presenteeism—to describe the phenomenon at its extreme, and a well-rehearsed set of protocols around meetings and collaboration based on co-location in a physical space. Recruitment, training, promotion, and other forms of career advancement were generally considered to depend entirely on physical presence in the workplace for a large majority of working time.

    However, since COVID-19 accelerated pre-existing trends towards more remote and flexible working, the concept of being “present” at work has shifted. Presence has become more complex: it no longer relies on physical co-location—employees can also be “digitally present” within the workplace as they work more flexibly across a range of settings, including the home, using online collaboration tools and other digital support. Individuals and teams are thus positioned across a continuum of time, place, and space, not assigned to a single office. “Presence” was once synonymous only with synchronous work, in which people work together on things at the same time (usually at a single office location). Now it is also an aspect of asynchronous work, in which work doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone and the cloud is the key location. 

    Omni-channel working

    Against this background, it becomes clear that this redefinition of presence asks new questions of the office building. It can no longer be a dumb and unresponsive container for work activities carried out synchronously by a workforce that is physically attendant on a consistent and unchanging basis. In the post-pandemic era; it must become a smart and connected entity that can curate and manage the interactions of an office population whose presence will fluctuate with demand and reflect more unpredictable working patterns.

    In the new world of work, the corporate office building will remain of critical importance as a hub to build culture and generate social capital, to seed innovation and train staff. But it will no longer be the only channel for work and it will no longer require daily attendance. In what some commentators have described as “omni-channel working,” employees will work in the future via multiple channels—at home, in local satellite offices, in coworking spaces, at client sites, and so on. The task of the office building will be to become a “destination of choice” that brings the right people together at the right time with the right tools for certain face-to-face activities.

    The “omni-channel working” term is a deliberate echo of omni-channel retailing. The switch by bricks-and-mortar retailers into online commerce, merging digital sales channels with those requiring physical presence in a store, provides a useful parallel for what the office sector faces now in adapting to a more hybrid model of work. For customer experience and loyalty, just substitute employee experience and engagement. A more consumer-centric workplace is perhaps inevitable when the “customers” have already tasted more autonomy at home during lockdown and now have more choice about where they can work. 

    Developing digital equality

    With a more distributed workforce guaranteed, the shifting parameters of presence throw down the gauntlet in terms of giving people equality of experience wherever they are working. This can be described as a quest for “digital equality.” Before the pandemic, collaboration across different channels of work—for example, physically present in the office and attending virtually from elsewhere—meant that the virtual participants had a much poorer experience than the people present in the meeting room. Virtual presence was a second-class citizen. The move towards hybrid work as a more permanent model creates an opportunity to level the playing field and create one seamless experience across all channels of work. Smart office systems will contribute to this process, and there is already much innovation in this area.

    As people start to work in a hybrid way, we will need meeting spaces with advanced audio-visual technology and design that creates an equal experience across all channels. Workplace apps can also enable digital equality and redefine the blended workplace experience. By sharing who has booked to be in on a particular day, by nudging or suggesting when would be a good time to go into the office, and by providing great user experience when people arrive at work, the app will become the gateway to workplace experience.

    As more companies pivot to a mobile-first approach, the smartphone will even become a proxy for physical presence at work—it will curate the workplace experience in advance of the person showing up in the office. From locating colleagues to plotting the route to a meeting room that has been booked, ordering food or checking on availability of classes or the wait time at the genius bar, it will define a new form of interaction with the workspace, but it is not the only technology to rethink presence at work. 

    Leap into virtual reality

    Take, for example, the rise of digital whiteboarding technologies that bridge the gap between physical and virtual participants in collaboration meetings by capturing all the data on virtual whiteboards and sending it to all participants. This means that, at the end of the meeting, all participants have the same information shared with them on an equal basis. Or take the large-scale investment by companies in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) as part of their strategy to maintain collaboration across distributed teams and with clients.

    Professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, for example, has bought thousands of virtual reality headsets to level the playing field in team meetings for employees who need to maintain social distancing. The company is redesigning offices with café-style meeting areas while doubling its cache of VR headsets. Executives at Fidelity International have meanwhile experimented with a VR auditorium, taking questions from colleagues and walking up and down aisles in a virtual environment. Bank of America has announced a partnership with VR start-up Strivr to bring virtual reality into its workplace training.

    While AR and VR are receiving the most attention during a tech-spending boom accelerated by the pandemic, companies are also experimenting with avatars and extended reality (XR), importing techniques from the gaming industry to try to transform the employee experience and engagement levels. Scientific evidence supports the idea that virtual environments can have similar impacts to those of the physical environment, which means certain work scenarios can be simulated remotely. Research from IBM found that XR workplace solutions significantly reduce employee time to complete tasks, enable the quick mastery of skills, and vastly reduce errors and the need for service calls. While XR has been on the workplace radar for a number of years, it is only now that large enterprises are waking up to its potential to redefine presence in the workplace.

    Smart, safe, and sustainable

    However, before we get too carried away with sci-fi visions, it should be said that several global employee surveys conducted since the start of the COVID-19 crisis strike a different note. It appears that people don’t want to spend all day working remotely wearing a VR headset. Employees generally want to return to the office, especially younger cohorts, but they don’t want to attend every day. Neither do they want to return to the office as it was before the pandemic. They want to return to a smarter, more people-centric work environment which does a better job of addressing their needs and expectations. 

    Flexible models need to be adopted where employees have the autonomy and choice to select how they work in the office and when they come to the office. While this is clearly a non-negotiable demand for the workforce, it poses a set of new challenges for organizations, particularly around managing teams and occupancy levels in the office. Three days a week in the office and two days elsewhere is the model many large employers are now announcing. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are considered the most popular days to come into the office, although this is not fixed in stone, according to research.

    This means that there will be different occupancy constraints and considerations throughout the week, and most likely, physical presence in the building will vary on a week-by-week basis. The only way organizations can build up resilience and be prepared for fluctuations in attendance is through data collection and analysis on occupancy. We can expect that connected smart systems will be used to promote safety and recovery in the workplace, but they can also be used to create a more resilient environment for the future. The emphasis of such systems is switching from engineering serendipitous encounters and promoting creativity before the pandemic to keeping people safe and programming buildings to meet social distancing protocols after it.

    For some time now, smart indoor navigation and tracking applications have ensured that office workers can use their workspaces efficiently. Now they can guide people to less dense areas in the office. The same connected systems can identify areas of the office which have been heavily used and schedule different parts of the office to be disinfected. Data from smart sensors can not only inform safer office design through the regulation of HVAC systems but also definitively determine how the office is being used and when. Space management applications can give decision-makers a real sense of utilization levels over time, replacing speculation with hard data and predictive analytics to inform their long-term planning.

    The future-ready connected office

    If “presence” in the workplace is no longer a one-dimensional idea, but an increasingly multi-faceted one, then a stable, effective and unobtrusive digital infrastructure is needed to underpin all the emerging considerations around hybrid ways of working. Software and systems architecture need to seamlessly plug into the physical workplace and connect to other systems to work effectively and create the safest, most flexible and collaborative work experience. Smart systems should be modular and scalable, so that companies can test the principles of the connected office at a basic level and be future-ready to scale up. In this context, the use of LED connected lighting with embedded IoT (Internet of Things) sensors makes a lot of sense from an operational and design perspective.

    Academic research in the field of environmental psychology suggests that the continuing endurance of the office building—despite some pundits predicting its demise after COVID-19—is because it enables us to invent, collaborate, and learn together most effectively. There are fundamental psychological reasons why we need to be physically co-located to support creativity and innovation. As researchers Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel predicted in the Harvard Business Review in 2016: “Human aggregation, friction, and the interaction of our minds are vital aspects of work, especially in the creative industries. And that is why the quality of the physical workplace is becoming more crucial than ever.”

    After the pandemic, the quality of the physical workplace will increasingly include smart systems and software to connect the infrastructure as part of a collaborative ecosystem. A shift in what it means to be present at work has seen to that.

    About the authors

    Kasia Maynard, WORKTECH Academy
    Kasia Maynard is Content Editor of WORKTECH Academy. Trained as a journalist at the Press Association, and with a Masters in Urban Design and Planning, Kasia forecasts trends in workplace covering design, place, technology, people and culture.
    Jeremy Myerson, WORKTECH Academy
    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 Professorial Fellow at the University of Oxford.

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