Sunday 17 May 2020 10:52 am

Office Politics: What does the workplace of the future look like?

Mark Leeson is an architect and director at the construction consulting and design agency McBains

There are plenty of people – including Barclays boss Jes Staley – who believe that big offices may be a thing of the past, now we’ve all got over our work-from-home hang-ups. But while the shift from the workplace to the home has been clear to see, less obvious is what the broader and longer-term impact of the pandemic will be. But there are a few trends emerging that give us an idea.

1. The importance of location will be diminished, especially London and commuter towns

As Staley highlighted, organisations will favour smaller, more localised cluster offices that facilitate shorter commutes to support connected but remote working.  

Demonstrating the ability to work in a remote but connected fashion will become a key trait those responsible for hiring will look for.

Decisions about where to live will be driven by quality of life rather than proximity to London.  A third of a million people moved out of London last year, and the pandemic will drive this further, leading to new emerging ‘start up cities or towns’ that have access to nature – coastal or national parks on their doorstep.  The pandemic has proven a large majority of office workers can work anywhere. This will lead to a talent boomerang – where people relocate to parts of the country to be near friends and family as well as access to better healthcare, education and leisure opportunities.

2. A greater priority on safety, health and wellbeing

Whilst physical and mental wellbeing was already rising up the agenda of many organisations, the pandemic quite rightly places health and wellbeing as individuals above any other concern.

We should start with two key questions – do we need to be in an office, and if so, how do we occupy them safely?  The pandemic has changed the oft-held view that if you are not in the office you are not working, as the vast majority of office-based businesses seem to be functioning perfectly well remotely.  

However, we are social animals that thrive on interaction. The focus of how we occupy office spaces must therefore shift from desks to activities. Coming into the office to collaborate, problem-solve or focus on specific projects will become the new normal. 

The quality of the office environment will also change, such as fewer lifts and wider stairs for better air circulation, digital reception areas and more outside space.

3. A business will be measured by its culture and flexibility, rather than its financial value

The crisis has, and will continue, to expose organisations with fragile infrastructure, poor leadership and narrow sector focus. Working in a remote but connected way requires trust, a shared sense of purpose, commitment and resolve. It exposes those who feel less engaged and requires exceptional leadership and management skills to overcome some of those challenges that are more easily dealt with when we are together.  Communication skills become critical for example, but more importantly, understanding how to adapt methods of communication to suit different individuals.

Overall, assessing the success or strength of a business from an investment perspective or even from a risk point of view will focus far more on its culture, structure and flexibility than a cold hard assessment of operating income or strength of pipeline. 

4. Remote working will change our homes just as much as offices

Remote working will also have an impact on homes. For too long, space standards have been under threat in the housing sector – smaller houses, poor storage, reduced outside space, and tiny home office space as a token gesture of ticking a box rather than being carefully considered in the broader context of facilitating new ways of working.

An inevitable impact of a significant shift towards home working will be to cause homebuyers to think much more carefully about what a home might be like to spend far more time in. Is there storage space, is there a room that can be converted into a home office, is there access to outside space, is the mobile signal good and is there a fast broadband connection?

We have a duty as designers and policy makers to think about the long-term impact of these trends, and build in space and facilities to enable those who can and want to work from home, to do so safely, effectively and in comfort.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.