All around the world, people are either tiptoeing back to shared public spaces–or longing to do so. Those responsible for managing and operating those spaces are, of course, focused on short-term considerations to reopen safely.

But even as office buildings gather cobwebs and stores struggle with plexiglass and disinfectants, businesses are aware they need much bigger thinking. If people can be just as productive at home and buy everything they need online, what is the purpose of shared spaces? Do people even need them anymore?

Of course, they do. Evidence of communal campfires dates back more than a million years, and almost all cities grew around central markets. But effectively reimagining these places means making allowances not just for preventing the spread of disease, but also for the drastically changed expectations of the humans who use them.

In reimagining the spaces and experiences of the future, organizations need to be more intentional than ever, building on the foundations of purpose, technology and trust. The most thoughtful ones can use these blueprints to start transformations they needed even before the current crisis.

Redefining purpose

Offices are especially ripe for reinvention. Workplaces used to be default containers. People went there because they were employed. Then COVID-19 turned tens of millions into telecommuters who quickly discovered they didn’t need to go to work to be productive.

About 42 percent of the U.S. is currently working from home, according to the latest estimates from Stanford University. The majority like it, with 59 percent saying they hope to continue. That reality is already sparking dramatic changes in corporate thinking. REI, the outdoor-gear retailer, says it no longer needs its recently finished eight-acre campus, as it leans into remote working.

But anyone who has seen Apple’s video dramedy knows there’s a downside. While personal productivity may increase, collaborating becomes more difficult. Even though the heroes do accomplish their nearly impossible goals using high-tech tools and giving up sleep, it’s at a tremendous (and unsustainable) cost. Microsoft studied its employees’ WFH behavior, and finds that work quickly expands, blurring into late nights and weekends.

Even bigger design challenges stem from the need to build collaborative workspaces to bring people together–at least occasionally. How can innovation spaces be both safe and inspiring? What elements maximize people’s ability to share? What is the best physical environment for ideation sprints? What should a post-COVID war room look like?

Retail stores, already moving to be about more than just fulfillment, are also searching for a renewed purpose. Online shopping can’t answer all sensory and emotional cravings. Think about cars: People want to sit in them and feel the seat, smell the interior, hear the noise of the door closing or the throatiness of the engine. Stores also provide a social component. That craving, temporarily crushed by COVID, will come back. And begs the question, how can retailers encourage social interactions in a safe environment?

And restaurants are more than a place for people to eat. They fill an intrinsic need to break bread together. For them, the challenge is to create spaces that are warm and convivial. They need to feel safe but not antiseptic.

Discovering essential technology

Technology and connectivity will continue to drive innovations for home-based workers. With platforms like Teams, Slack and Zoom already proving tedious (and sometimes tyrannical), employers will find ways to lessen the intensity of tech demands and make them more human.

Technology is also transforming the world for the people who can’t work from home. (And corporations are coming to terms with the uncomfortable truth that telecommuting remains a relative luxury, predominantly available to white, college-educated and managerial employees, according to research from the U.S. Census Bureau.)

The majority still have to go to work–factories, farms, hospitals and stores. Keeping these workers safe is far more complicated. But industries realize that they need to protect those that are on the front lines. There have been significant strides in depopulating these workplaces, such as telemedicine to stepped-up factory automation.

From foot-operated doors, click-and-collect commerce or the stepped-up use of drones, people will increasingly reward organizations that use technology to make life better. Stores must continue to invest in new technology that makes shopping more social, more shareable and more interactive. They must use tech to inspire people, showing them what’s possible and of course, making things easier.

People want to do business with companies that recognize them, respond to their needs, reward them for their loyalty and treat them with respect. It used to be enough that they were treated in a friendly manner, and then it was keeping their data safe; now it’s also about keeping them healthy.

Building trust through shared spaces

When companies create shared spaces that help users accomplish “the job to be done” while providing an environment that projects “evident safety,” they can establish or reinforce the “trust” relationship that is at the center of any branded experience.

The pandemic has provided plenty of negative proof for this. Early on, people were likely to view their employers’ actions as thoughtful and generous. But that quickly changed as “we’re all in this together” rhetoric gave way to rising infection rates. The most careless companies, such as meat processors and grocery chains, emerged as corporate villains. And by May, people named CEOs as the least-trusted in their response to the crisis: Only 43 percent in one leading trust index believe that companies are protecting their employees sufficiently.

People want to work for companies they believe in. To retain employee trust, businesses must do more than protect employees. They must also respect that they now see workspaces differently. To hire and keep the best employees, companies will need to build workspaces that offer flexibility, choice and a new way to collaborate.

Retail customers have been scared away. One study found that six in ten shoppers have used an alternative to their usual retailer since the pandemic. Amid that level of disruption, only those offering exceptional experiences–safe, inspiring, engaging and respectful–can re-earn loyalty.

As stores and restaurants rethink their physical spaces, they need to build in ways to make the experience more trustworthy–and to give people reasons to rely on them. Using sensory cues and technology, they can gain trust by answering shoppers’ emotional uncertainty with clear reasons to believe again.

These environments will be smarter, more anticipatory, provide more at-hand information and more personalized. They will provide a sense of security and confidence while enabling experimentation and discovery.

Final Thoughts

The shared spaces of the future will address all those needs. Shared spaces will have a clear purpose, use evolving technology and help build trust. They won’t just be safer, post-COVID. They’ll power organizational growth for years to come.


Connect with us to learn how Prophet is helping clients rethink the customer and employee experiences as the purpose of space evolves.