By Brent Tiessen
To understand the office of the future, take a look at what has enabled some offices to operate productively and safely during the pandemic.
The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the importance of making sure your space aligns with how people work. As some people move back to their offices, teams are forced to collaborate in new ways. Half the team may be in the office boardroom while others are working from home. Nearly everyone is now familiar with video meeting software and people realize they can work productively across distances. For those who have returned to their offices, certain precautions have to be taken. Businesses have moved furniture – and in some cases walls – to accommodate social distancing.
Technology is the unsung hero in society’s ability to stay productive as we work through this disruptive situation. But technology involves more than electronics and software. It also relates to how walls and furniture are built. Technology has enabled people to experience their office work environment in new ways.
Let’s consider three trends that underscore the need for flexibility in the office of the future.
Designing your office space in new ways
Office space design generally involves the layout (e.g., where interior walls are placed) and how furniture is configured. It can be difficult to visualize what your office will look like early in the process. Will the offices be too large or too small? Will it feel like we have enough space to function with the furniture in place?
Virtual reality (VR) can help. Action Office has a VR system set up in its showroom in Saskatoon so customers can now experience their office before it is built. People can walk around their virtual space and even open a cabinet door. You can sit in your virtual office and review details, such as where the electrical outlets are or where you’d like USB charging stations located. With traditional construction, it is harder to catch details like this until the space is being built. Changes are always possible during construction, but they increase costs.
BECAUSE A BUSINESS’S IDEAL OFFICE CONFIGURATION CHANGES OVER TIME, SUCH AS CHANGING A MEETING ROOM INTO AN OFFICE AND VICE VERSA, FURNITURE HAS BECOME MORE CONFIGURABLE SO IT CAN ADAPT.
Smart software allows Action to draw and plan a space in real time. Costs are calculated automatically and the order can be submitted directly to the factory. The customer gets cost certainty, and the process also cuts down on order processing time.
Technology can be imbedded in prefab wall systems and even furniture, enhancing the possible uses for the space. Monitors are not just mounted on walls – they can be built into the walls. With this system, a simple film cover, like you can place on your cell phone, can turn any monitor into a touchscreen. Voice-activated tools like Amazon Alexa can be incorporated to create a voice-activated virtual assistant that can dim the lights, pull up a file on the room’s monitor, and more.
Such prefab wall systems are commonplace now, but they are still a fairly new technology. Installed, they look like regular walls. But they mean that adjusting the purpose of a wall – to turn a space into a meeting room, for example – is easy. The walls can be moved to create the new space, and a video monitor can be installed just by popping off a wall tile, rewiring as needed, and placing a glass cover over the monitor. It is much easier than trying to adjust a traditional office built out with drywall.
Working from home… and from your office
Companies are finding that some employees prefer to work from home and are productive in that environment. It seems likely that working from home will remain more prevalent than it was before the pandemic, but Action says its customers have indicated that nearly all employees will eventually work primarily from company offices rather than their homes. The question then becomes one of how to transition employees back into the office.
As workers come back to offices, they face new restrictions on how close to other people they can work. This emphasizes the need for well-planned, flexible space that can adapt to a company’s changing needs over time.
People will be more mobile with their work. Some will work primarily from home but be in the office for one or two days per week or for meetings. Most will be working almost entirely in the office but will work from home on occasion. Office space will have to accommodate whoever is in the office at any given time.
Space will need to be set up in a way that ensures social distancing but still enables collaboration. For example, meeting rooms must have seating that allows people to shift their position to create distance from others. One option is a portable seat on casters with a tabletop attached to the base of the seat. The table is the perfect size for a laptop or tablet. Think of it as a mobile elementary school–style desk for adults. It is extremely comfortable and functional, and provides tremendous flexibility.
The trend in North America before the pandemic was toward micro-offices, which means higher density. Saskatchewan has always provided a bit more workspace for employees. For example, Toronto was trending toward around 80 square feet per employee, while Saskatchewan was at 120 square feet.
Density is the result of office wall and furniture configuration. In Saskatchewan, 6-foot by 8-foot workstations are a fairly common size. In other markets, 5 to 6-foot wide benching stations are more common, which now create a challenge for employers distancing staff as they return.
Now there’s a trend toward companies reorganizing space to provide employees with more social distancing space. In workspaces that have a greater need for private offices, the “micro office” is a trend giving employees the same amount of desk surface space in their 9 x 12 foot office and moving them into an 8 x 9 foot office. The reduced office size creates a need for more meeting space. Companies are shrinking the sizes of large meeting rooms created in the past by creating impromptu meeting spaces of two- to four-people. These spaces are placed strategically throughout the office and not necessarily grouped together, making it easier for teams to jump in.
Because a business’s ideal office configuration changes over time, such as changing a meeting room into an office and vice versa, furniture has become more configurable so it can adapt.
Technology is having a significant impact on how offices are designed and used. Everyone experiences benefits from embracing technology. Tech-enabled offices are more engaging for employees and create a better work environment. Companies appreciate the financial and productivity benefits.
Consider these trends carefully when determining the right space for your employees in the future. Above all, ensure your space is flexible so you can adjust it to the needs of your company over time.
First published in the December 2020 edition of The Business Advisor.