29 April 2020

Is this lockdown the start of the end for offices?

Photo: Siemens AG (SRE RS)

How the role of offices could change and how smart offices can continue to provide a benefit to employees in the future

Amid this global pandemic, it can be difficult to think of anything else. Memories of taking a train into London, or sitting in a meeting room with colleagues seem distant now. These things will happen again soon enough, but what does it mean for our offices now that our sense of ‘workplace’ has been dramatically shifted recently?

Will knowledge workers finally go full nomad and ditch formal offices completely? 

With the majority of people forced to work from home, it may be easy to announce the end of the office, but don’t close the doors yet. Offices still have an important role to play in our work lives, for a number of reasons, they just have to be smarter.

This current lockdown situation has forced us to live virtually and as a result we have found new ways to work, meet and socialise. I think the adaptation we are doing now will accelerate the changes in how we work. I expect we will, as a society, embrace more home-working to improve work-life balance. It is also an opportunity to reassess where we work; ambitious sustainability targets will require many of us to drastically change our travel habits, spending more time in the office and travelling virtually. We can continue to use our webcams and conferencing apps instead of flights and cars.

Here are three was in which offices form a core part of our working lives.

We need Community

If there is anything the recent weeks have taught me, it’s that its much harder to create and maintain a sense of community when everyone is working remotely and there is no central meeting place. Creativity, innovation and even motivation need to be stimulated. I believe that if we trace great ideas and business opportunities, we will find a lot of them started, or were inspired by, a conversation or interaction between people.

Creating a sense of community takes more than having a building. 

Smart offices, and more specifically workplace applications, can help to create a sense of community by making events and meetings easier to arrange and publicise. Helping people to find each other and work together, when nobody has fixed desks, is made possible through optional location sharing and impromptu meeting space booking. Serendipitous interactions can be encouraged through clever office design which is adapted over time based on live usage data gathered by IoT sensors and presented in a clear dashboard.

Offices support our Productivity 

This (sometimes elusive) goal means different things to different people. Achieving personal productivity also requires very different means from person to person. I Imagine many of us are having to find ways to be productive in lockdown, with our work and home lives merging into one. Many of us can’t wait to be back in an office again, to be able to focus, or to have a change of scenery – others will be enjoying the 10-second commute. It’s important when we do go back, that our offices provide the right environment for productivity. 

The satisfaction of occupants, is a pillar of the smart office. Maximising the air quality and natural lighting can improve well-being and giving employees choice of where they sit, and individual control over the temperature, lighting and blinds when they get there, gives a sense of control. It helps people to create their optimal environment which is often not possible at home.

Our spare rooms will probably be less comfortable when it gets over 25 degrees outside.

Comfy workplace app home screen

Employee satisfaction can also be improved by removing friction in the working day through a customised workplace app. Interactive maps help to quickly find and navigate to rooms and facilities or report issues or faults. The same interface can have menus for the restaurant and notifications that queues have died down or information about local events. Current COVID-19 advice for the country, company and at a local building level is easily visible. This keeps employees informed, safe and reassured and can be used by people working from home too.

We want freedom and variety

The hardest thing many of us have found with lockdown is the lack of choice. I used to appreciate the chance to work from home, but after 6 weeks of being forced to do so every day, the novelty has worn off. Many of us will miss the change of scenery and having different types of space and different people around us. 

Well-designed offices should provide the optimum space for different activities, like phone booths, project rooms, auditoriums or desks in quiet areas. Smart offices give people an easy way to see if these are available and book them freely. Employees can can book a desk next to a co-worker for the day to work through something together. They provide somewhere we to invite a potential customer for a workshop or discussion without a patchy internet connection or badly timed delivery getting in the way.

Good Wi-Fi is an integral part of a smart office but is often not present in our homes.

Offices will need to adapt

Flexibility is one of the main goals of a smart office. With people working in less predictable ways, smart offices provide the booking systems, data and analytics to better predict demand for the building. This helps to manage peaks in demand to avoid employee frustration from overloading of space and car parks, and to match services like cleaning and catering to demand. During low occupancy periods the smart office can run as efficiently as possible; for example keeping whole floors empty to allow maintenance or use for other purposes like events and community support. Empty areas can also be switched into ‘standby mode’ to use as little energy as possible.

Returning to offices safely

A smart office environment can even support us in the upcoming transition back to work safely after the lockdown, detailed in this playbook from Comfy. When we start to return to offices, there will be a long period of time when some restrictions remain. Occupancy levels of buildings will still need to be reduced dramatically to maintain safe distancing and allow sufficient cleaning. Making use of existing features in the workplace application, strategies can be applied to match the changing advice and best practice; to enable businesses to find the best balance between meeting employee needs, maintaining safety and managing financial impact.

It’s difficult to predict what will happen in the next few months and how or when we will return to work, so flexibility in our offices will allow us to adjust with a changing situation. Smart offices can support safe return to work now, using the same technology that will create a great employee experience and keep people coming into offices long into the future.

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