The Post-COVID-19 Work Environment: How the pandemic forced transformation in an environment reluctant to change
In the early 19th century, a Welsh textile manufacturer named Robert Owen coined the slogan “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” while advocating for improving working conditions within the manufacturing industry. Over time, that slogan manifested itself into the typical daily formula many of our lives still follow 200 years later. The context in which this work is performed, specifically in corporate office environments, has remained relatively unchanged. Until Covid-19.
The Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered the nature of corporate office environments. The implementation of social distancing and work from home orders disrupted every norm for how an office operates and shed light on several overlooked truths regarding workplace efficiency, productivity, and communication. As designers tasked with safeguarding the public’s health, safety, and welfare, we must respond responsibly to the issues this pandemic brings and challenge the dogmas of office design it has inadvertently exposed.
Before I get too far, let me preface this blog post by saying what it is not. This is not a tangible list of do’s and don’ts for designing a post-Covid-19 workplace. I am not here to tell you that you need to make everything touchless, install sneeze guards, or maintain a certain distance between desks. While those protocols may make your office slightly safer, they are the obvious, low-hanging fruit for those of us in the design industry. Those protocols are viable and should still be vetted. Still, they are just the tip of the iceberg regarding how designers need to respond to this pandemic. Instead, my intention is to recognize how the pandemic has forever changed the corporate workplace and to question the idea of what a workplace should be moving forward.
Office Design and Telecommuting: A Brief History
Before the pandemic, office environments were chiefly designed around employees’ programmatic needs – desks for solo work, conference rooms for collaborative work, and support spaces such as a kitchenette. These spaces’ layout fell somewhere on the spectrum of a long-debated dichotomy: private offices versus open office layouts. The favorability of these two layouts depends on who you ask. Employers tend to love open offices because they are inexpensive and purportedly encourage collaboration. Still, employees tend to hate them because they are distracting, loud, and sans privacy.
Although working from home, also known as telecommuting, is a concept that has been around since the 1970s, it was not until the 21st century that it really gained steam. The advent of mobile telecommunications, which allows people to be connected to the internet through a portable device, revolutionized how, when, and where people could work. Cloud-based file sharing, virtual video meetings, and digital communication capabilities provided the means for unshackling us from the physical office. Despite the introduction of these technologies, they were never fully utilized or put to the test. Most traditional employers never had the time or reason to implement new telecommuting procedures. But, as we all know, the pandemic offered that test.
During the pandemic, and to the potential dismay of your traditional employer, over 50% of American workers worked remotely. Ostensibly, it is easy to assume that working remotely directly correlates with a loss in productivity. While we could argue the legitimacy of that statement or debate the metrics for measuring productivity, it may prove frivolous. Regardless of how well it did or did not work for different companies, it is a concept that is not going away anytime soon. Against their will or not, both employers and employees experienced what telecommuting looked like for their company.
The Measurable Concomitants of Telecommuting
Telecommuting has revealed several unforeseen and potentially beneficial implications for the future of office design. In terms of the physical office itself, employers realize that if fewer employees are coming into an office every day, it decreases the square footage an office requires. Since less square footage equals cheaper rent, employers are now contemplating smaller office spaces. That becomes feasible when employees spend a percentage of their time working remotely.
A design technique often used to aid this lessening of square footage is popularized by co-working spaces known as hoteling. Hoteling utilizes unassigned desks, sometimes referred to as “hot desks,” that employees can temporarily use as they come and go on rotating schedules. By implementing a combination of rotating schedules and hoteling, companies can give employees physical flexibility otherwise unattainable through a typical 8-hour day.
Obviously, the practicality of hoteling and rotating in-office work schedules depends heavily on the nature of the business they are implemented in. If you are in an industry such as architecture that requires large lay-down spaces to properly view cumbersome blueprints, it may not be realistic. However, if your line of work only necessitates a laptop and an internet connection to be productive, it can prove quite effective. The lessening of square footage also reduces the amount of furniture an office needs to function. Diminishing the number of desks, chairs, and other stuff companies fill their offices with is another way business owners can cut costs associated with the physical office.
A lessened real estate footprint is not the only thing advantageous for employers. Telecommuting can expand the talent pool by not limiting it to geographical regions near the physical office. In addition to the ability to hire skilled workers who telecommute, the company is, in turn, reducing its carbon footprint. Fewer employees commuting means fewer cars on the road, fewer carbon emissions, less in-office energy usage, etc.
While mandated work from home orders will eventually leave us, the pros and cons we have discovered will not. Of the numerous surveys and studies conducted this past year attempting to gauge employee’s attitudes towards telecommuting, most of them point to the same thing – employees enjoy the flexibility that working from home provides. Still, they miss the collaboration and culture that comes with a communal workplace. And, within these findings, is where the actual design challenge is.
As designers, we will do ourselves and our clients a disservice if we continue to design the past’s solely functional office environment. Instead, workplace design should be geared towards the experiential, providing a place for employees, employers, clients, and guests to engage in ways that they cannot virtually. The 21st-century workplace should be a place for people to be inspired, educated, and reminded of their company’s mission. It should not be an environment full of assigned desks for mundane tasks such as checking email.
In specific terms, the 21st-century workplace should include flexible collaboration spaces that can rearrange depending on the quantity and needs of users. It should consist of a dynamic educational space for the continuing education of employees. It should include gathering areas equipped for celebratory social functions, where employees can bond over achievements or milestones. Amenities will also play a significant role. Perhaps we should start to think of the workplace in similar terms to a wellness club, providing a one-stop-shop for employees to work, exercise, and lead healthier lifestyles. And, of course, technology will be imperative. All these spaces need to come equipped with the latest technology and be designed with infrastructure that allows for the continual updating of that technology.
For the record, I am not advocating for telecommuting 100% of the time. The physical office will still play an integral part in a company’s culture and operations moving forward. We will never be able to replicate or replace the value of face-to-face human interaction. Instead, I am advocating for reimagining what office design should be, given the circumstances the Covid-19 pandemic presented us. Even post-pandemic, a large majority of companies plan to continue with some form of telecommuting. And, as designers, we will need to recognize and address the implications that will have on corporate office design. Office design priorities will need to evolve to focus on telecommuting procedures, employee schedules, and sustainable practices. Although it may have been revolutionary for its time, perhaps it is time to move on from Robert Owen’s daily formula of breaking down the day into three equal parts and create work environments that are as flexible as their inhabitants.
One thing that we will never be able to replicate is the value of human interaction. When everyone was seemingly “virtual,” there is so much joy to be had in connecting. And as inefficient as some conversations may be, they can help lead you to a day filled with more enjoyment simply by being present.