Changes are coming to the corporate workplace. The instigator of those changes? Coronavirus, of course. But the key word here is “changes.” The corporate office will change, but it won’t disappear.
That’s the topic that Alissa Nelson, design manager with Spark Design, the in-house design firm of West Des Moines, Iowa-based R&R Realty Group, addressed in this blog post. As the post says, the COVID-19 pandemic will bring long-lasting changes to corporate offices. But the office, even with employees learning how to better manage their work-from-home time, still serves an important function, one that shouldn’t be sacrificed even if more workers spend at least part of their time working from home in the future.
As Nelson writes, facial nuances, gestures, body language and tone of voice can’t be fully communicated when workers aren’t gathered together in an office setting, even through video chats. And these behaviors are vital to collaboration.
Then there is the mentorship that younger employees get when working in an office with industry veterans. It’s difficult to imagine the same level of mentoring over a Zoom conference.
And what about those employees who lack the resources to successfully work from home? Many struggle to access the technology needed to complete their work, while others live in areas with unreliable wireless or cellular service.
So, what does the corporate office look like after this pandemic? REjournals asked Nelson this question during a recent phone interview. Here is what she had to say.
Why is it important to maintain at least a version of the corporate office even after companies have learned that it is possible to do their business with their employees working remotely?
Alissa Nelson: The office provides an important infrastructure to create a culture, community and relationships to allow employees to achieve more. You don’t get that from a Brady Bunch-style Zoom meeting. We have a hard-wired primal need for social interaction. We are always going to have that want and need to meet face-to-face.
What advantages do employees get from going into a physical office?
Nelson: There are significant psychological advantages to going into an office. It’s all about interacting in person. Employees can read each other’s body language. They can see the nuances in people’s faces and voices. It’s what helps us learn to trust people and bond with each other. You can’t get that with a virtual meeting.
You develop a lot of your camaraderie by being able to work in person with people. There are the offhand little chats that cause you to bond and build trust with coworkers. Those don’t take place when you are working remotely. If you work within a team, this in-person time is important.
What will corporate offices look like, then, when people do start returning to work?
Nelson: First, people are going to come back in waves. Companies will not bring everyone back all at once. We still see essential employees returning to the offices first.
We might also see a staggering of work shifts. Some people might start at 8 a.m. Some might start at 6 to limit the number of people in the office at the same time.
As far as the layout of space goes, I think we’ll see a change in the geometry of workstations. People will no longer be sitting face-to-face but back-to-back. You might see checkerboard or staggered patterns of workstations. There will have to be changes to make sure people are maintaining their social distancing. There will have to be some de-densifying of workplaces. There might be the addition of some sort of panels between workers.
Do you see any office trends that might be reversed?
Nelson: I think we will see less unassigned seating. People will be concerned about sharing a workspace with someone. We might see a return by companies to assigned seating. You sit at that exact spot whenever you are in the office. When you are done for the day, you or someone else cleans it. There will be sanitizer stations everywhere.
I think we’ll see a change in meeting rooms, too. They will have to be de-densified, too, so that meeting attendees can maintain that six-foot distance.
There will be more emphasis on cleaning protocols and schedules after this. Companies will do more to make employees aware of how they are cleaning spaces.
Even with acknowledging how important the corporate office is, do you think we’ll see more employees working from home at least part of the time?
Nelson: I think so. The cat is out of the bag. Companies that have been wary of allowing employees to work from home are seeing that in many cases working from home does work. People can still be productive. It is difficult once you give employees a taste of this choice to take it away from them. In a lot of cases, companies already the have the technology in place to support working from home. This is going to be something that will be ingrained as part of the culture.
Do you see any positives coming out of this for companies and employees?
Nelson: The one positive we will see coming out of this pandemic is that the emphasis on employee health is going to take center stage. There will be new office configurations and new designs. Companies will incorporate a lot of the lessons we have learned from healthcare design. Indoor air quality will become paramount. There will be an emphasis on ensuring that we will get healthy, clean air into our offices. There will be a focus on making sure materials are cleanable, that we can make our spaces as clean as possible.
Employees are definitely going to get back some of the square footage that they have lost over the last decades. I don’t think we’ll see the return of the private office, but we will see more square footage overall now that people are more aware of how easily a pandemic can spread.
The one thing we do know for certain is that the office will look different when we return.