Whether you are working from home or in the office, we are becoming increasingly aware of how our environment affects our productivity and wellbeing. Having adjusted to our home workspaces, what will tempt us to leave the house and commute back into the office? Our expert panel weigh up the workspace trends that now need to deliver so much more than a desk and chair.
Despite the increase in remote working and many office spaces lying empty for months during the first Covid lockdowns, the office is not entirely dead.
In 2020, there was a lot of talk of downsizing the office footprint with some businesses scrapping the traditional offie altogether. A report by PwC found half of the UK’s largest companies planned to reduce their office real estate, with a third of those reducing it by more than 30%. A report by the Robert Walters Group which surveyed 2000 global companies, also found 37% plan to reduce office space.
There is still a requirement for many organisations to retain some office space as we see a move to more hybrid working models, and businesses looking at how they can adapt what they already own rather than scrapping it completely.
In the home, we are also changing how we use our space. An increase in working from home means we are looking to capitalise on the space we have, making use of every corner and unused alcove where we could house a work station.
What is undeniable is that the workplace has evolved and is continuing to do so.
We speak with a panel of experts to evaluate some of the key changes and trends that we are seeing. How has Covid and the new ways of working impacted workplace design? For those adopting a hybrid approach, what do people want from their office spaces?
Lee Chambers is the founder of Essentialise and an environmental psychologist and workplace wellbeing consultant who helps businesses design wellbeing strategies linked with inclusion and talent retention.
Dr Stephanie Fitzgerald. Clinical pyschologist and neuropsychologist, who works across multiple industries specialising in workplace mental health and design for cognitive wellness.
Why there is no clear winner in the home vs office debate
As some organisations begin the transition back to the office, things look different. Not everyone is rushing back with excitement. We know from the Great Resignation that many thousands of people want to remain at home, or at least have the choice and flexibility to do so.
For companies who are trying to decide how they move forwards with their operational models and space, there is no universal blueprint to follow. Businesses and individuals are trying to decide what remote looks like, what hybrid looks like. Who will go to the office, who will stay at home, and when and how often?
Many businesses withstood a challenging systematic change to disperse their staff. There is little appetite to revert to previous working models says Cannons. “They’ve now got a pattern they’ve honed and worked over the past couple of years, they’ve found a new rhythm and they’re in a new mode of working. It’s a headache to change it all again after taking ages to get it right.”
For this reason, he says they have also witnessed a move to coworking venues. There are businesses, for which it is a choice, for others, he says, it is from “the headache of having things as they were.”
Smith is also seeing a change in mindset, saying some companies are approaching the transition with a remote-first attitude and prioritising equipping their homeworkers. “For some, the money is not worth being spent on a newly-designed office. They are providing for the homeworkers rather than spending the money on an office space… They think it’s the right way and want to give people the right tools.”
On the other end of the scale, there are organisations calling for everyone to return to the office, somewhere in the middle, hybrid working continues to dominate.
“I think we’ve been working very hard to make sure we’re not pitting hybrid working, or homeworking versus the office,” says Fitzgerald. The perception that those at home had it better and were safe, or that those in the office were lucky because they got to escape didn’t have to work with family disruption became a divisive topic.
Fitzgerald points out that the pros and cons for both need to be taken into account for designing an adequate work environment and we need to better understand the reasons why people would want to return to the office.
Social interaction is one of the primary reasons. “People are wanting to come back not just to work, not to collaborate (they can join a meeting on Teams which might suit better) but what they want is human connection, to be around other people.”
Other issues with homeworking she says extend to “unboundaried work practices” due to a lack of physical cues to do things such as move, take breaks, have a drink, and shut down to finish work.
Ultimately, the challenge has been reframed with the focus firmly on the end user – the workers and individuals who will inhabit the office. Cannons says designing a workspace now centres on how people will use the space, from a whole building to a single floor plate. “From reception areas and lobbies through to capacity for lifts, and getting fundamentals right such as lighting and air… There’s a big move to understand individuals.”
The age of personalisation
For those who are going back to the office they want a “significant change in their environment” according to Cannons. The attitude before the pandemic seemed to be, “build it and they will come”, but now that is not the case.
“We used to think about who the biggest competitors were. Now the homeworker is the competitor. At home, we’ve set our preferences perfectly, as close as we can, even if sat at the kitchen table. To replicate that in an environment where you’ve got to get people to get out, commute, enter a space that’s not purely to their preference, that customisable element is a key role. That’s the challenge for developers, how can we begin to understand our end user even more.”
Chambers echoes this, seeing workers much more willing to challenge and make demands. “They have more requests because they’ve been able to tailor their domestic environments to suit them. They are going back to the workplace now, saying: ‘I’ve given a lot over this past period, what can I gain back in value in my space?’ There’s that increased curiosity and questioning of what can be done.”
At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, people were grabbing office chairs and monitors and trying to create a home work environment that in some way replicated their office set up; this was the ideal after all, wasn’t it?
Yet, now we are seeing the reverse is true. We are not thinking: what about the office environment do I need for my home workspace, but how can I make the new office space feel more like home? Companies are having to think creatively to entice people back.
Hyper-personalisation is on the horizon.
“People are expecting things a little bit more unique to me, a little bit less cookie cutter,” says Chambers. “People want a kind of comfort that gives you a platform and level of stability that means you can be productive and perform at a high level while still being catered to.”
Cannons refers to it as corporatality; hospitality in the corporate setting. "They want a good reason to go out to work. People want a more members club style: the space, the zones, the fluidity of interaction. It has to cater for everything.”
Customisation can come in the form of working styles but also in the design and configuration of space.
Different uses and safe spaces
One of the trends for the workspace is centred on zoning different areas.
Even in the home workspace, we see people segregating their work areas to incorporate wellbeing and relaxation zones.
We are seeing similar in the corporate environment. Cannons says prayer rooms, chill out zones and wellbeing areas give employees different spaces to suit their needs. “The best work conditions for one are different for another. The open plan, stripped down box doesn’t work. It’s too noisy now… We need to look at how we zone [it] out to accommodate people working their best or wishing to focus more. How do we design a space for collaboration?”
He also believes there is a generational view on it. “It’s clear that for any career-minded Gen Z-er looking to learn more from their leaders, wanting to carve out their path, it’s natural they want choices, spaces to focus, spaces to collaborate, a social destination, a place to have a drink after work.”
Incorporating these different functionalities is another way to entice people out from the comfort of home.
For developers and architects, one of the biggest challenges is creating an environment that is suitable for so many different personality types, needs and preferences. The focus is drilling down to understand how to accommodate everyone as best as possible.
As well as zoning for different practical uses, it will also be important to create psychological safe spaces. “Some people come to the office because it’s a more comfortable, safe, adequate space than their home is so the workspace needs to be designed with safety in mind as well,” says Chambers.
That includes exploring how to make a space more inclusive for those who are neurodivergent or with different needs.
Bridging the gaps at home and in the office
The disparity between home office setups was never more apparent than during the pandemic. “We saw a real challenge when people were recording videos in their home study and being watched by apprentices in a house share with eight people,” says Fitzgerald.
Chambers says that as well as a generational divide, there are also inequities between urban and rural dwellers with the strength of the wifi connection and access to services.
With energy prices soaring, returning to the office could appeal to people who are struggling with heating their homes in the day. "People are coming into the office to get warm. They are coming back to use decent wifi and use the shower,” Fitzgerald adds.
She believes the workspace needs to be designed with cognitive wellness in mind and that includes psychological safety. During the pandemic, she was instrumental in empowering employees to manage their mental health. As a result, she says they have seen a “massive reduction” in mental health sickness absence.
“Typically, we lose a huge number of women around the age of menopause as they can’t manage their symptoms so they leave the workforce, which is a huge loss to the business. We’ve seen that massively drop over the last few years as people have been able to work from home and manage their symptoms.”
Chambers agrees that the menopause is a significant challenge we are only just beginning to address within workplace design. “That shows how systemically challenging certain gendered health challenges are in the workplace. From a design perspective, I believe it will start to bleed in more and there will be increasing considerations across that spectrum about how we accommodate different demographics of people, and people with lesser privilege in office spaces because it’s still going to be a place of social importance."
For those who are neurodivergent, Fitzgerald says we need to understand why the office will continue to be important. She cites the example of people having difficult work-related conversations from their living room or bedroom, or that children may overhear. “[In the office, you] get to package everything away, get in your car, drive away from it and psychologically disconnect but [at home, you’re] having that conversation at the same table you're eating dinner at with your family… For neurodiverse people, that separation [is] near impossible.”
When it comes to designing a work environment, this is why, as well as the zoning of areas, the physical components are key to creating a more inclusive environment both in the office and at home.
This includes the correct ergonomic furniture and accessibility for individuals to perform their jobs.
Seamless communication between home and office
From smart desks to hardware tracking, technology will play a pivotal role in the home and office.
Zoom rooms are a new design feature that are integral to an organisation’s ability to communicate in the hybrid world.
“The challenge is ensuring employees have the right tools to do the job. It comes down to the right planning [and understanding] what the space is used for so you get the right level of quality with cameras, and an audio setup suitable for the environment,” says Smith.
“All these things are important to understand and plan – so you’ve got the right hardware for safety reasons and comfort reasons with the furniture – and then the technology to allow people to be involved seamlessly with people in the office.”
Improving the experience for remote workers is something Smith is seeing becoming more of a priority with things such as a simple headset to a more sophisticated setup in a large home office. “If someone is genuinely working from a kitchen table in an open space, it is hard for them to join a virtual meeting. At least if they’ve got the right audio setup, that will block out some of the noise for them and the people on the other end of the call. That’s a big help.”
In the office, Smith says they are catering for the more traditional meeting room that people want for interaction with customers. “We’re not seeing meeting rooms disappear, it’s about upgrading and refreshing those spaces.”
Smaller spaces he refers to as ‘huddles’ are also a trend in updated offices to engage with people who are remote. While some of the audio requirements differ, he says “There is the same interface now between home and office. It is easier and ubiquitous to use.”
Offices are being designed with larger collaborative spaces as well as smaller workstation booths with technology such as acoustic fences to afford a degree of privacy and prevent distractions and interruptions.
Image: Hassel Stock/Shutterstock
Configuring the space for health and wellbeing
Mental wellbeing is one of the priorities for companies and many are exploring how to enable healthier lifestyles.
“There is a lot more focus on end of trip facilities,” says Cannons, referring to features such as cycle spaces, showers, changing rooms, and gyms. Providing an easy and convenient way for employees to cycle in, have a shower, grab an ethically-sourced coffee from the café, is how companies can attract people in but also boost productivity.
He says biophilic design will continue to be a trend, making more of the outside spaces and creating a deeper connection with nature inside.
“If you’ve got ample terrace space, that could be used for events, or you might put a pagoda up so it can be used for meetings. Getting furniture outside so it feels like you have some fluidity is a big selling point and almost a default expectation for an occupier. If you’re considering employees’ needs and want to retain talent, there needs to be these these facilities at a base level. Then you have have the fundamental elements of lighting, air, acoustics and noise reduction.”
Smith is also seeing how the wellbeing focus is influencing furniture choices such as sit-stand desks but also the layout of the space with designs being less densely populated.
Chambers agrees. “People are looking for a bit of space and distance because of the nature of the pandemic and the health aspect, and there’s more adaptation to that distance, but people also want a level of enclosure with less distraction.”
Creating a sense of space is also important in the design. “In terms of configuration of space, the focus is on getting lots of volume, floor to ceiling height, not just for ventilation but for malleable configurations of whatever the space design is for,” says Cannons.
Image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock
The importance of brand value
Sustainability will continue to be important in the workspace. As much as for the environment and employee wellbeing, Chambers says it aids talent acquisition as a marketing tool. He says people are psychologically attracted to spaces that are designed with intention.
“There’s still that value of brand for employees, it’s a big attractor for retaining talent,” agrees Cannons.
While the design of the workspace will depend on the company culture and how they intend to use it, some organisations will use it as a brand asset and a status symbol. “It might be more important to have a view over the Thames than anything else,” he says. “There is a lot more thinking in terms of, 'how do we have a space that we won’t find anywhere else, including the home space?”
Businesses are looking more at their identity, something which they may want to rebuild post pandemic and their space needs to reflect this identity.
"Moving forwards, it's about having a deeper understanding of people’s environmental needs and how that can be built in not only to repurposing the space they currently have but any future space decisions they make," says Chambers. "Employees have adapted to working from home and acclimatised quickly but there are also challenges and they have started being articulate about them."