It’s time to imagine the new workplace

Campus-like office buildings with grassy open-air spaces that melt into indoor spaces.

Cubicle farms transformed into a motley mix of private work areas and collaborative spaces.

Robotic agents that deliver packages to people’s desktops, so they don’t have to scrounge through everybody else’s stuff in the mailroom

Those are just a few of the scenarios people have outlined to me in recent weeks as I’ve asked them to envision the workplaces we will eventually return to.

Although COVID has punished optimism in the past, it appears that there is finally a reasonable chance that some semblance of normalcy will resume this year.

What have we learned from the mechanisms we developed to cope with the crisis that will lead to substantive long-term change?

Over the next couple of issues, I’ll outline what experts have been telling me and how technology will play a role in the new normal.

Shared everything

The entire workplace unquestionably will become more shared as fewer workers return to a desk they can call their own five days a week.

Interface, a developer of modular flooring, adopted a desk reservation system for all personal workspaces and some meeting rooms. It lets the company selectively activate workstations based on usage and distancing needs.

It reclaimed some underused space, expanded collaboration areas, and accommodated safety guidelines without removing furniture. A spokeswoman said that more than three-quarters of employees who responded to a survey said they felt comfortable returning to the workplace thanks to the accommodations.

Incidentally, the desk reservation system market is exploding with more than 25 different choices available. Computerworld’s Keith Shaw posted an outstanding roundup piece last summer.

Great outdoors

Workspace design firm Duda|Paine Architects, predicts a surge in outdoor work options for people who crave the peace they enjoyed working on their decks.

Outdoor spaces will be designed for year-round use and will incorporate a variety of overhangs, canopies, trellises, windbreaks, sun shades, and plants to duplicate that “backyard” feel.

Indoors, Duda | Paine expects stepped-up air filtration technology to be employed along with touchless controls for physical access, restrooms, and elevators, much of it orchestrated by smartphones.

The firm also expects many companies will strengthen connections with residential facilities, restaurants, and retail outlets, making it more convenient for employees to intermingle their work and home lives as they did during lockdowns.

Some of the most significant changes will be how people meet, says Larry Gadea, CEO, and founder of Envoy, a maker of workplace technology. Conference rooms will get a facelift with more noise-canceling headphones and big-screen TVs to accommodate scale videoconferences

But one staple of on-site meetings – the whiteboard – isn’t likely to make the cut, he said. “People are learning how to use iPads for drawings, so remotes can be included as well,” he said. “Invest in things that bridge the physical with the remote.”

Hubs and spokes

The expected bloodbath in commercial real estate never materialized, and while occupancy rates remain low, the sector is mainly expected to recover. But in a different form.

Ryan Chambers, Senior Director of Consulting Services at commercial real estate company Transwestern, has proposed a new approach to workplace design based on a hub-and-spoke model and traffic-monitoring software to cut commute times.

Rather than funneling all employees into a central office, he suggests, organizations can deploy a network of geographically dispersed sites that are more convenient for employees to reach.

Locations are determined by linear programming models tuned to minimize the distances.

One Houston-based Transwestern client tried this approach by leveraging the Google Maps API and cutting the average employee commute time from 31 minutes to 18. More importantly, the percentage of workers considered at high risk of quitting over the inconvenient commute dropped from 19% to 2%.

The hub-and-spoke model can also undergird a more efficient approach to recruiting by locating offices in places where there is the highest number of job candidates who live within a 30-minute commute.

Chambers believed the technique could more than double the potential labor pool for some urban employers.

A customizable, secure, and constant connection

A constantly coming and going workforce presents technical challenges that Essensys is addressing with a global private network that can be sub-segmented into numerous private networks on the fly.

People get a secure and constant connection without logging into a VPN, regardless of where they are in the workplace, even if it’s an office a thousand miles away.

While there may be fewer people in the office on any given day in the future, that doesn’t mean fewer people will spend at least some time there, said Envoy’s Gadea.

“What people seek out of offices is to be together with others,” he said. “Emptiness doesn’t create culture.”