How will prolonged working from home impact office design?

17th April 2020

Helen Berresford, Partner and Head of ID:SR, writes about how the prolonged period of working from home (WFH) induced by COVID-19 may affect the future of workplace design.

Read the full article here.

How will prolonged WFH impact office design?

Although we may only be in the early stages of a substantial period of working from home, clients and designers are already contemplating the lasting impact of COVID-19 on how we think about and design physical office space. The current, sudden shockwave to working culture has provoked businesses to increase investment in technology, while restructuring teams to ensure efficiency and performance at the level expected by collaborators and clients. I am currently being asked: are we at a watershed moment? Are we at the precipice of a workplace revolution?

I think our current forecasts indicate that—rather than revolution—the situation will likely create a turbo-charged evolution of the workplace values that were evident before the pandemic. Before COVID-19, the office had already become a place of convergence between professional and personal, formal and informal. Willingness to embrace flexibility and upend traditional ideas of corporate culture has already been established, so these changes will only feed this appetite for agility.

Once people are free to go back into the office, it’s likely that previous ideas about WFH will be reevaluated, giving more choice for balancing time in the office or at home, leading to an inevitable reappraisal of office design and reinforcing the workplace as a social hub. People will ask: why am making a trip into the office? What different functionality or experience will I have there compared to remote working? What tasks are best done at home, and what benefit is gained from being in the office?

The office will embrace what WFH can’t, with its high level of social interaction its key selling point. While the resulting scenario could see a decline in office space used, the lasting impact of WFH will be how that space is used. We might see less traditional task desking to make more room for more interactive workspaces, supporting more collaboration and workshopping with colleagues and clients. The choice between home and office could significantly increase mobility, and the increased trust established during the WFH period shattering presenteeism.

We will also be asking: how can we utilise the technology that’s seen an increase in investment in new and different ways? Many people have spent more time with their families during this period, and video technology could be used to keep people connected to home whilst in the office, creating spaces and opportunities for more meaningful conversations and connections with family during lunch or breaks.

Because WFH tends to be quite linear, the physical office must adapt to be more discursive, enabling and maximising chance interactions. Designers must work harder than ever to create internal masterplans that spark this level of interaction. This could also lead to establishing social spaces as the linchpin of an interactive office experience that values the currency of togetherness.

The future workplace will of course depend on your sector or the culture of the organisation; however, the current crash-course in WFH has cemented a widespread understanding of offices as places that revolve around people and collective identities.

Most of us are now far more familiar with video conference calls—with our colleagues’ homes, families and pets making cameos in the background of our meetings. This has helped us remember that life outside the office does not make us less professional, rather it reinforces our identities beyond simply our professions. It is this renewed awareness that will lead to greater convergence between work, live and play—accelerating a redefinition of flexibility, while challenging occupiers, developers and designers to keep pace with this rapidly changing dynamic

Helen Berresford RIBA

Partner, Head of ID:SR