Before Covid-19 entered our periphery, and as an architecture firm designing a wide range of workplaces, we at Lemay were already seeing a split in priorities in office settings. The executive leadership in many organizations was thinking about how to optimize space in order to maximize real estate capital costs and increase the performance of the workspace in order to use it as a tool to create more profit. Employees, meanwhile, were already vocalizing concerns about their in-office experience and the need for it to provide a healthy and supportive sense of belonging. They were also expressing interest in work-location flexibility, in response to their complex schedules of juggling childcare, eldercare and commuting.
Based on our research and client feedback, we knew that between 40 to 60 per cent of office space was poorly utilized. Where there was increased density in workspaces, employee performance suffered. Meanwhile, there was an emerging interest in changeable work arrangements, collaboration and mobility; and a demand for wellness and sustainability initiatives that prioritized better air quality, access to natural light and health programs.
Then the pandemic hit. In March, we were jostled out of our task chairs and nudged away from our standing desks as our firm, like most, quickly mobilized to implement measures that put the health and safety of our 450 employees in Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City and New York City first. We implemented the necessary personal hygiene and physical distancing protocols and, within two weeks, assembled a setup for working entirely remotely. Like many organizations, thanks largely in part to our technological tools, we succeeded in creating a virtual office. Months later, it’s operating as efficiently as ever.
But this radical shift, established by emergency, does not reflect a truly flexible work arrangement. We’re uncomfortably cooped up inside, unable to venture out for business meetings or lunch at the neighbourhood watering hole. That said, our urgent response to the shelter-in-place orders served as an acceleration of what was on the horizon – of what we’d already been seeing in our own studies and projects. For many organizations, the office of the future had already been well on its way in and the pandemic was the big push.
Now, here’s what we can imagine for the ideal workplace of tomorrow. Companies need to have a finger on the pulse of the organization. This is two-fold. First, a new workplace model shouldn’t change the DNA of a company. Values and purpose shouldn’t morph just because the technology has. Second, employee engagement is key; this understanding will help managers draw their teams back and will inform the new physical layout of the workplace – one that should still support virtual presence.
We need to embrace an accessible and activity-based physical model, one that prioritizes health and mobility. That means fewer workstations and enclosed offices, and more multifunctional space that offers room for safely distanced collaboration, knowledge-sharing, mentoring and training. Quiet nooks embedded in these more fluid spaces could support work that requires concentration and making Zoom or phone calls. As a whole, the physical space needs to continue to activate the ad hoc cross-pollination of ideas and the impromptu bump-ins that are crucial to teamwork.
To attract people back to the office – and keep them there – workplaces need to be high-performance, transformative environments that can compete with emerging technologies and all of the opportunities for mobility that they offer. This new model functions not just as a platform for doing work, but as a connecting hub that facilitates both spontaneous and organized face-to-face collaboration. And it’s influenced by residential and hospitality design – and geographical location: By actively integrating elements of the urban realm, a workspace can emphasize the notions of campus, connectivity and diversity.
At Lemay’s offices, for instance, we display work by local artists, partner with local organizations to host events and support local markets and makers. We’re also repositioning the value of the physical office environment as a space for learning, creation and collaboration that connects with our corporate culture, while simultaneously promoting the benefits of working remotely.
Whether we’re finding inspiration in coffee shops, hunkering down at the local public library or vying for the lone plug at the airport gate, the mobile working model has its advantages. It’s empowering. This approach offers opportunities to think without interruption, as well as autonomy and independence over work, along with a higher frequency of efficient meetings with minimal distractions or tangents. As long as it is planned appropriately: which comes back to the notion of choice, something that requires great care in shifting management practice.
A holistic approach is not only a solution for today, but an evolutionary transition for years to come. Furthermore, giving teams the flexibility to select what workspace suits them best represents an empathetic, human-centred approach that celebrates shared values and increases employee satisfaction and overall happiness; it’s a profitable and sustainable strategy. Allowing teams to set their schedules and select their work location nurtures and promotes trust in and respect for space and leadership. There is a richness in providing variety and the freedom to choose how one engages with their company.
Following a long stint away, a vibrant and inclusive workplace can draw employees back. But that’s not all. The office of tomorrow will be a purposeful combination of both the physical and virtual workplace that dramatically shifts the triple bottom line. Previously, social, environmental, and economic success were equally weighed; now, employee health and wellness are critical to a successful enterprise. It is imperative for companies to address the profound aspects of wellbeing beyond offering catered lunches and gym memberships. Health, safety and wellness is the cornerstone of the competitive office of tomorrow. Companies need to establish a new set of objectives that consider the social, experiential and environmental aspects that can help bring together employee and organizational priorities to achieve high performance, promote happiness and offer choice. Now is the time to meet – virtually – with your team and talk about the future of work and the workplace in your community.
Sandra Neill is an associate and workplace strategist at Lemay.
According to Lemay workplace strategist Sandra Neill, Covid-19 will serve as a catalyst for a more flexible office setting that was already on the way.