The Office of the Future Is Here, and You Might Not Recognize It
Once upon a time, “the office of the future” may have conjured images of robot assistants, hologram meetings, and notes taken on clear acrylic whiteboards. But while sci-fi office fantasies do remain, employers are looking at a nearer future with much different priorities.
When the world turned upside down in March of 2020 with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it took with it any previous ideas of what “the future” might look like. The office of the present started to look a lot like a workspace in the corner of the kitchen, and the future seemed too uncertain to bother thinking about. Now, as workplaces are beginning to open up again and companies are devising their own models for operation, that future has arrived – and, with concerns for things like safety and flexibility at top of mind, it looks a lot different from the office environments of 2019.
Employers are also returning to in-person function in the shadow of the Great Resignation, with employees holding a lot more of the cards when it comes to hybrid scheduling and environmental demands. A study by Birchwood Park, a UK business park, uncovered employees’ main concerns about returning to the office, with social distancing and health and safety at the top of the list (while, on the other hand, one of the main cited benefits of a return to the office was the opportunity to interact with coworkers in person).
With fully remote jobs still on the table in many industries, workers have a lot more options that allow them to prioritize a pleasant working environment in their job search. Today’s employees want to feel safe and comfortable, and they want to feel that their employer is listening to them and has their best interest in mind as they venture out into this uncertain new world. What can employers do to meet their employees’ needs and the demands of an almost-post-COVID business environment?
Welcome to the office of the future.
Hybrid schedules will be a defining factor of office life moving forward, and that will demand flexibility. Employees might prefer to come to the office only a few days a week, and others might prefer coming in full time, and others – accommodations for concerns like medical vulnerability must be taken into account – will prefer not to come in at all.
Dedicated office space for employees who will only be in attendance two or three days a week is a waste, and hoteling (having general workspaces ready for anyone who might come in and need it) and hot-desking (assigning multiple employees to the same workspace on different days) are a far more efficient use of space. But both of those options require office setups that can easily adapt to the needs of whichever employee happens to be using them at the moment.
Adjustable desks can easily accommodate any employee’s preference for a sitting or standing desk. Freestanding cubicle dividers allow employees to adjust the dimensions and layout of their space according to their need for privacy and elbow room, and allow employers to rearrange workspaces if social distancing is called for.
Workers will also need space for collaboration that seamlessly integrates their remote colleagues and adjusts as necessary for social distancing. That should include casual seating – think comfortable chairs and easy-to-arrange sectionals for informal gatherings – as well as conference room setups that can adapt to the number of team members in attendance. In both cases, don’t forget about the necessary technology to accommodate team members who will be attending remotely, including teleconference-friendly A/V setups and portable hardware.
Work-from-home life certainly hasn’t been a utopia for every employee over the past two years – the Birchwood Park study revealed that many employees were looking forward to a work environment separate from their home – but for some, even that impromptu home office has its advantages over a corporate environment. Bringing the comforts of home into the office contributes to an environment where employees can feel more content and be more productive.
Greenery around the office can add a sense of life and freshness to the workplace. (In areas where an abrupt shift to remote work could make watering difficult, consider substituting realistic-looking artificial plants for the real thing.) Open spaces and a variety of comfortable seating areas create a more relaxing environment than the standard corporate cubicle farm. And don’t underestimate the value of an upgraded breakroom – give your employees the benefit of more snacks, a greater selection of coffee, and comfier seating than they can find in their home kitchen, with attention paid to making sure any officelike aesthetic stops at the breakroom door.
Light and sound management are crucial for employee well-being, and in an office environment, light-filtering window shades allow workers to adjust the amount of natural light coming into the office to their own preference. And many employees prefer desk lamps to harsh overhead lighting. (A dimmer switch can also help take the edge off of harsh lighting, if you’re up for an upgrade.) If noise control tends to be a challenge in your office, choose upholstered room dividers to muffle sound and create a quiet, peaceful working environment.
Safety, Health, and Wellness
One thing employers can know to expect in the coming months and years is the unexpected. Faced with concerns including future COVID-19 spikes but also seasonal flu, the common cold, and whatever health concern will crop up next, employers have to be prepared to keep their employees safe while in the office and to keep them out of the office entirely if public health calls for it.
In a pandemic, wall-mounted, hands-free safety measures are an important concession to contagion. A wall- or stand-mounted hand sanitizer station helps employees protect themselves from germs, and a wall-mounted thermometer allows them to check for fever before entering the office. In an office where it isn’t feasible to rearrange cubicles for social distancing purposes, acrylic sneeze guards between workspaces can help limit transmission. And clean air is crucial, both for safety’s sake and for a pleasant work environment – air purifiers can be found in small-space, large-room, and full-office capacities.
But employee health and wellness don’t stop at simply not passing around the infection du jour. Physical and mental health are a long-term commitment that employers should be prepared to support. That adjustable desk (research suggests a ratio of 60 minutes sitting to 60 minutes standing for optimal health) should be accompanied by an ergonomic office chair to support employees’ neck and back health during sitting mode.
And many aspects of employee wellness can’t be found in a store – substituting healthy snacks in the breakroom, encouraging physical activity throughout the workday, and providing mental health support to employees all contribute to physical, mental, and emotional wellness that help make employees happy, productive, and loyal.
The Future Is Now
Safety, hygiene, and employee health and wellness aren’t just a nice benefit for employers to offer their employees – they’re crucial for guarding against illness and burnout that can lead to high medical costs, lost productivity, and employee turnover. And a report by TINYpulse says 62.8% of HR leaders report higher employee performance with a hybrid work arrangement.
The future has arrived, and the office of now is more flexible, comfortable, safe, and welcoming than it’s been in the past. A return to the office won’t be a return to the way things used to be. The world is changing, and employers can’t afford not to change with it.