As the post-pandemic office takes shape, experts envision more remote working adaptations, hybrid work models, flexible spaces and touchless tech.
In the rush to keep business moving at the onset of the pandemic, remote working became the norm virtually overnight. In the early months companies expected their employees would return to the office in the foreseeable future, leading to modifications like plexiglass partitions. By now it is apparent that remote working is here to stay, at least to some extent. Its success, combined with the need for more permanent safety measures, is giving rise to reimagined workspaces.
A new survey from KayoCloud, a real estate technology platform, found that more than 80% of companies are adopting a hybrid work model, wherein employees will be in the office three days a week. Target, Walmart and Google have already announced plans for hybrid models. Demand for office space will likely drop; a survey from PwC found that some firms have already cut back on real estate. Last month, Target said it will give up its office in downtown Minneapolis. Back in September, REI sold its headquarters in Bellevue, Washington. “We really are at an inflection point,” said Meena Krenek of architecture firm Perkins+Will, which is busy redesigning offices.
When employees do come into the office, what will their workplaces look like? Experts say that gathering spaces will be expanded. In the interest of reinforcing their culture, companies are creating more flexible spaces to safely accommodate personal interactions, furnished with pieces that can easily be moved and reconfigured. Office furniture suppliers Steelcase and Knoll report strong interest in mobile tables, carts and partitions. In conference rooms, large screens for remote attendees and presentations would replace central tables as the focal point. There will likely be fewer personal workstations, since they would often sit empty. These are being replaced with hot desks or “hoteling” workstations, available for anyone to book for the day on an as-needed basis.
Whether a company is downsizing its real estate and moving to a cheaper location farther afield or for any number of reasons, some employees will remain entirely remote. This presents the challenge keeping them as engaged as those who are physically present. According to the New York Times, some high-tech solutions are being considered, such as using AI to “conjure up holographic representations” of off-site employees. A more immediate option is to have all attendees join online, even if they are physically present, so that remote participants can see everyone else.
Technologies such as devices that combine 360-degree cameras, microphones and speakers for enhanced sound and visuals are likely to be built into workplace architecture, for example in the form of a “Zoom room,” said Krenek. Other innovations are springing up, like videoconferencing booths with built-in screens. Returning office dwellers can expect more screens in different places, as well as digital whiteboards. Likewise touchless features using mobile apps, sensors and voice controls are expected to multiply, as are outdoor spaces and systems for improving air quality.
Real estate lawyer Geoffrey F. Fay of Pullman & Comley said that some measures are being enshrined in leases. It is certainly in the interest of landlords to make offices as safe and comfortable as possible for tenants, who may be weighing whether or not to return at all. “Landlords realize we are on the precipice of change,” he said.