Date posted: 25/06/2020 5 min read

How will we reshape the post-pandemic office?

Our enforced experiment with mass remote working may spark a radical rethink of the office post-COVID.

In Brief

  • Questions that will be asked post-COVID-19 include, who really needs to be in the office?
  • A Unispace survey found 45% of respondents are more productive working at home, but 36% found it more difficult.
  • It is widely expected that more people will be working from home after COVID-19.

By Fiona Smith

Once a stake is plunged into the heart of COVID-19, office workers may find themselves with more freedom to choose when and where they work.

While an effective vaccine will remove the immediate threat of the disease, it’s unlikely office work will ‘snap back’ into its previous shape. The unexpected experience of extreme workplace flexibility during COVID-19 lockdowns has raised some big questions for the business community.

They include:

  • Who needs the office?
  • Does the office’s current form suit its purpose into the future?
  • Can people really do their best work at home?
  • What is lost when we stay away?

Invercargill firm Malloch McClean was committed to flexibility before COVID-19, spending three years recalibrating its business to work “in the cloud”. However, the work-from-home lockdown experience was less than ideal for parents who had to supervise children at the same time.

Malloch McClean managing principal John Schol CA says this issue was one of the dominant themes of feedback from his people.

His solution was to invite them to extend their home-working by another few weeks, once New Zealand’s schools reopened in May. This allowed the team to cement new habits, such as focusing on value creation, rather than the hours they put in at work.

“We wanted our team to experience what it would be like working from home under different circumstances before assessing how successful working away from the office would be,” he says.

A global survey by design and workplace strategy firm Unispace, released on 5 June, found 45% of respondents reported being more productive at home, but 36% said it was more difficult due to ineffective set-ups and having to juggle care-giving responsibilities at the same time.

No one-size-fits-all for remote work

It’s widely expected that more people will be working from home after COVID-19. Some technology companies, such as Twitter, have told their employees they can work from home forever.

A Swinburne University survey of 272 commuters in Australia found nearly four in 10 respondents had never worked from home before the crisis, but 90% said they expected to continue to do some remote working in the future.]

Large professional services companies have been global leaders in workplace flexibility. At PwC, 85% of people were already working flexibly before COVID-19.

PwC Australia assurance managing partner, Matt Graham FCA, says a post-pandemic work environment should cater to the needs of individuals. While some PwC staff have missed the social interactions of the office, others have found the solitude at home has helped them concentrate.

There are also staff who prefer to stay physically distant for longer, due to health concerns and the risks of catching and transmitting the virus.

“So, when we're giving everybody the choice [of where to work], that doesn't feel like a big decision because it's a choice everyone already has,” says Graham. “We're not telling them to go into the office.”

Graham says there is no one-size-fits-all solution for how the workplace will operate as people return.

“I can see situations in our firm where people will feel the need to be in the office to be more productive. And, just the same, I can see the opposite of that, too,” he says, pointing to the time-consuming logistics of getting onto public transport while maintaining physical distancing.

“I can see situations in our firm where people will feel the need to be in the office to be more productive. And, just the same, I can see the opposite of that, too.”
Matt Graham FCA, PwC Australia

Like other companies that had adopted activity-based working (aka hot-desking), PwC is bringing back allocated workspaces for the time being, with physical-distancing controls around how people move around the office.

“I think a new normal without social distancing is not coming until, at a minimum, there is a vaccine that’s widely used,” says Graham.

“I think it'll be really interesting to see what kind of permanent changes result from this change in circumstance.”

Making work more human

Melbourne-based workplace consultant Mark LeBusque says the post-COVID-19 workplace experience should be customised, with each person choosing the elements that help them perform best.

The focus should be on making work more “human” rather than trying to keep people engaged with gimmicky attractions, such as the slippery dips and the fun park theming that was popular in the 1990s.

“It is about creating an environment where people feel like they're actually trusted to come and go,” he says.

“It is about creating an environment where people feel like they're actually trusted to come and go.”
Mark LeBusque

LeBusque speculates that employers may introduce interruption-free zones, where people can do “deep work” or even small rooms, where individuals can completely control their environment when they need to do some serious thinking.

Because humans are also “tribal”, there should also be places where people can socialise, network and meet new people. Managers must understand that sitting around and "shooting the breeze" is how some work gets done, he says.

Architecture firm Woods Bagot suggests there may be workspace models where the entire office is filled with groups of cafe or lounge-style seating. The workplace would be solely for face-to-face collaboration and any desk-based work would be done from home.

LeBusque warns that employers resistant to flexible working may find it challenging to take away the freedoms people enjoyed when they worked from home.

“That’s where managers are going to get caught out. Going back to the old ways will push people away.”

Vision of the future – what we may see in the post-COVID office

Cleaner: A continuing focus on hygiene, including contactless lifts.
Emptier: Reduced density of workspaces.
Smarter: Greater spending on cutting-edge technology and equipment that people can’t get at home, to make the office an appealing destination.
Smaller: Meeting rooms replaced by small rooms where people can do “deep work”.
Service: Baristas and disposable cups instead of self-serve kitchens.
Hotelling: Booking a desk for the day before you arrive.
Satellites: Small offices in the suburbs, connected to the city head office.

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