After months of working from home, some businesses are eager to return to the office–and many remote employees can’t wait to get out of the house.

But as case numbers continue to surge, employers are moving deeper into pre-emptive planning. When will it be safe to go back to work, and when it is, what should offices look like? How should they function, especially with millions of people planning to continue to work remotely?

Workplaces used to be default destinations–a place we went just because we had a job. Now, as 42 percent of Americans continue to work at home, we have learned we don’t need to be in an office building to be productive. But the truth is, we all seek human connections, and many companies are aware that while the work is still getting done, leaders worry that employees are not as engaged or collaborative as they used to be – the jury is still out.

The design questions keep multiplying. First, there’s safety. How many people in an elevator? Are HVAC systems adequate? What about contact tracing? Fairness is also an issue: Can workspaces integrate and support digital workers and those who are physically in the building? And perhaps most importantly, there are concerns about adaptability, how do we design offices for a hybrid workforce that will use spaces in ways that continue to evolve and change?

As Prophet reconfigures our own workspaces, we’re taking into account a need- and desire- to be physically together, at least some of the time. And we’re using service design to zero in on the four major “use cases” which our new offices will need to support: connection, collaboration, concentration and culture. While these principles have always been a big part of our work lives and office design, they will be enabled in teh workplace in different proportions now.

A more intentional design inverts the current allocation of space from productivity to collaboration. Besides potentially reducing square footage by 20 to 30 percent, it also requires that the office become a place that supports the work of both physically present and remote team members.

         

[Figure 1a & 1b:] A more intentional design would invert the current allocation of space from a “productivity” orientation to be more “collaboration” focused.

Flexibility is key to these plans. The question for all businesses isn’t so much who will work remotely and who won’t, but rather, when do team members need to be in an office and when will they be working from other locations.  The share of working days spent at home is expected to climb from 5 percent, pre-COVID, to 20 percent. Experts say employers should envision a world where people work remotely from one to three days per week. How can they work better when they are remote? And what “jobs to be done” should be supported on days when they choose to work from an office?

While offices must accommodate the activities of some specialists, the new space configuration must primarily work for an interdisciplinary workforce and support a wide variety of activities. Multi-functionality and flexibility will be important to feasibly and practically accommodate these four use cases.

Connection: Co-workers need each other

The need to connect goes beyond the transactional aspect of production and knowledge sharing – even the most intense introverts need to know they are part of a larger whole. We’re envisioning this space as informal, with cafes, kitchens and casual spots to catch up, as well as digital, with places to check-in and gather daily information.

 

[Figure 2:] Connection includes digital check-in capabilities, casual touch base areas and kitchen amenities.

Collaboration: Building better ideas

For many companies, the biggest emerging challenge in remote working has been in encouraging innovation. Like Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, some call working from home “a pure negative” when it comes to ideas and creativity. We have been employing effective ways to be creative with a more distributed workforce, but after canvassing our team we recognized a need for providing ways to work together in our offices.

We see the need for at least three types of space: traditional–but teleconference enabled–conference and teaming spaces, more fixed “studio” areas with workstations and equipment that doesn’t travel easily and work that benefits from collective interactions, and flexibly outfitted areas that can accommodate medium to large groups in easily re-staged, digitally supported environments with moveable equipment, furniture and fixtures.

 

[Figure 3a & 3b:] Collaboration spaces include digitally-enabled conference and team rooms, flexibly outfitted spaces for medium to large groups and more fixed studio areas with workstations that enable collective teamwork.

Concentration: Alone together

Perhaps one of the pandemic’s biggest take-aways is that not everyone can focus while at home, with working parents especially struggling. And even those in more collaborative roles still need a quiet space to write a memo or a phone booth for a conference call.

Quiet rooms for more individual “deep work” like copywriting or product design and development, are becoming a destination for those jobs requiring more solo work, more mental focus and concentration. But they still want to be close to others, creating more of an “alone together” feeling.

[Figure 4:] Concentration supports workstations and furnishings and lighting to enable deep thinking for solo practitioners.

Culture: This is who we are

Finally, shared spaces need to do something less easily defined. They should express what an organization stands for, accommodate its rituals and project its values. Again, flexibility is critical–how can these spaces make occasional large group interactions and events possible? How can they bring teams together–both in-person and virtual–in new ways to reflect a new way of working?

Ultimately, this piece of the puzzle may be the most important. The pandemic has taught us that “work is not a place;” and that the workplace can be so much more than a lobby, a desk and a conference room.

The spaces and functions of the workplace need to come together for a purpose–and with a purpose; representing and enabling what an organization stands for and believes.

 

 

[Figure 5:] Culture space includes flexible but well-equipped environments with fixed and movable equipment and furnishings that support external meetings and internal gatherings.

Final Thoughts

Organizations must continue to envision their future by balancing the threat of rising case levels, the hope for vaccines and the genuine costs of remote worker burnout. But designing offices for a return to “normal” is not enough; we must challenge our default assumptions and build on what we’ve learned to reimagine the workspace. We believe that the best designs will accommodate hybrid office-based/distributed workforces–and they will also say something about who we are.

Is your organization thinking about how to return to the office and what that might look like for its employees? Reach out today to our team of innovation strategists and experience designers.

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