This is what the 2021 office should look like

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Very few consequences usually occur in a nanosecond.

Yet, following the promising news on Covid vaccines, it didn’t take much longer for some bosses to predict that workers will be evicted from their homes and return to the office sooner than expected.

There is “no doubt” that companies will start pulling people off when a vaccine arrives, Lewis Horne told a California newspaper the other day.

Mr. Horne could say that. He is a senior executive at U.S. commercial real estate giant, CBRE, and responsible for its activity in Southern California, where office occupancy has this year would have dropped by an area equal to that of two Empire State buildings.

But he’s right. The question is, when we go back to the office, what should that office look like?

Suppose employers listen to the 72 percent of office workers in 10 countries who recently said researchers they want to continue working from home after the crisis, most of the time for about two days a week.

This is an important assumption, but encouraging for those who like the idea of ​​doing their work at home and in the office. Done right, this hybrid way of working could end much of what was hopeless in the office buildings that were emptying at the start of the pandemic, starting with their rows of open offices.

These were meant to foster teamwork and productive discussions, which certain types of work need – sometimes. But open-ended designs also force workers to endure a vexing amount of noise, distraction, and lack of privacy because studies have shown for decades.

Things got worse as companies cut costs and reduced floor space. “Twenty years ago, the average worker could expect about 25 square meters each; today it is less than 10, ”writes Gideon Haigh in a new book history of the mapping office, The memorable and uneventful day. Mr Haigh believes that one of the reasons homeworking has proved popular this year is that it has restored the privacy workers have lost over the past half century. I agree.

It also seems likely that hybrid workers will come to the office primarily to meet other colleagues. So why not convert an open space into something sorely missing in many offices: easily accessible meeting rooms.

Since some of the team will be at home, hybrid meeting rooms will need decent WiFi for zooming and enough power outlets to charge multiple laptops at once.

Speaking of zooming, the hybrid work desk will likely need more dedicated space for people to participate in video calls or webinars that look certain to last beyond the pandemic.

And since Zoom and its rivals are far from perfect, I like to think they’ll be replaced by a cheaper version of high-end telepresence rooms that make virtual meetings feel more like real life.

Apps that let you quickly see who’s in the office and who isn’t will be vital.

Likewise, if open-plan offices make it difficult for jobs that require careful and focused thought, so does a home with a toddler or two. So more open space could be turned into something else that most offices lack: ultra-quiet areas where people can easily work without interruption for hours at a time.

What else? Hotwalls can be useful. It’s a big screen connected to an always-on video camera that some companies have used for years to keep distant colleagues in the loop. In a hybrid office, they could be placed in places like a dining room so that home workers can see what their coworkers are doing and chat with those they love.

There are many more possibilities. They will not all suit every office. Ultimately, the pandemic undermined managers with Taylorian trends who think workers need the constant supervision offered by open-plan offices. But it also caused enough economic hardship to induce even greater cost reduction. There is, however, a chance for hybrid work to turn the office into a much better version of what it was before Covid-19.

pilita.clark@ft.com

Twitter: @pilitaclark

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