The pandemic has shown us that work can go on without a workplace. If it can be done online, it can be done from virtually anywhere with an internet connection. At the same time, however, the move to remote work has revealed the value of the workplace, as many employees hanker to return to the office.
In light of these two opposing trends, what might the office of the future actually look like?
Elvira Muñoz Beraza, director of the master’s in strategic design of spaces at IE School of Architecture and Design, in Madrid, says that this year’s disruptions will transform offices for the better. “The pandemic has accelerated trends that were already there and has forced companies and experts to have difficult yet necessary conversations,” she says. “The office is the place for collaboration, social interaction and a sense of belonging. This implies less ‘me’ spaces and more ‘we’ spaces: the long open areas filled with individual workstations or filled with cubicles are gone.”
With individual workstations effectively relocated to people’s kitchens and living rooms, offices are being reconfigured as places that primarily exist for teamwork and collaborative activity – albeit with strict social distancing measures in place and partitions separating different teams and departments.
Architects and office planners are already busy with a raft of changes, including larger desks and layouts that make more use of stairwells to reduce the use of enclosed lifts. And, of course, there’s the ongoing drive to minimise the use of frequently touched surfaces, such as taps, door handles and buttons.
Beraza is focused on how offices can evolve to meet the changing needs of a company and its employees. “I believe the design of the workplace will need to focus on a hybrid combination of physical and virtual, of individual and collective, of internal and external actions, tasks and collaboration.”
She notes the importance of supporting a hybrid form of office and remote work. “Remote working should stay, combined with physical encounters. Remote work is sustainable because it provides more choice and is more inclusive and diverse. The nine-to-five office culture is gone for good.”
Lewis Barker, ServiceNow’s senior manager of workplace services, EMEA, believes that, post-Covid, the distinction between “working from home” and “work” will cease to exist. “For many employees, the traditional office and desktop workspace is over. For them, work is wherever they want or need it to be, on whatever screen and digital device they prefer,” he says. “This agile, more distributed ‘anywhere, anytime’ workplace of the future will transform how companies operate.”
Barker believes this flexibility will become an increasingly important factor for attracting and retaining staff. “If businesses don’t look to change, whether that’s with a hybrid model or all the way to completely remote, they will struggle to bring in the talent needed,” he says.
There are many ways technology can step in to support this shift to a hybrid work environment. Liran Daniel, IT systems support manager at ServiceNow, points to the rise of the self-service solutions that use technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and augmented reality. “Those changes will let you be more productive and waste less time asking for help, letting you finish your job more quickly while keeping the quality high. We’ll then have more time to be with our family and friends – and, as we see it, there will be no need to call IT and wait for help. Using AI and machine learning, you will have a ‘wizard’ installed on your laptop that will provide you with answers and even fix [the issues] for you.”
Within the office, new technologies are being adopted to enable more rigorous safety protocols. Companies are shifting to touch-free sensor technology for handles, buttons and taps, signalling a reverse from the preponderance of pre-Covid touchscreens. Some planners are even looking at technology that will allow staff to control lifts and vending machines using their personal smartphones.
“In terms of the conversations we’ve been having about safety precautions in the future,” says Barker, “it’s about trying to reduce the number of touchpoints employees have, whether that’s automatic doors, coffee machines, access card readers and things like that, to reduce any contamination generally.”
Other design changes will need to take place, too. Daaf Serné, ServiceNow’s director of global real estate and workplace, suggests this will include allowing more square metres per person, as well as improving the amount of space in high traffic areas, and re-thinking how we can meet and collaborate in our offices. “One thing that will be key, is how technology will influence the physical environment. When thinking about the role that AI will play in the future workplace, it will help us predict when people are coming in and how we can optimise/better utilise our spaces to support our employees better. When we talk about our ServiceNow products and how we would use this, reserving your seat or desk in the office will be ‘normal’,” he says.
However work works right now, you can do it confidently with the ServiceNow Safe Workplace suite. Engage with employees, automate steps for returning, and provide a safe, employee‑ready working environment. Find out more at servicenow.co.uk