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Rethinking The Workplace

The coronavirus pandemic has seen a massive increase in working from home. Yet ‘return to work’ is almost entirely seen as being about how to (re)design the traditional workplace to enable people to work safely, and how people can travel to work safely. Very little attention is given to the design of the spaces for working outside of the traditional workplace.

Literally millions of people have now discovered that actually they can work remotely, in addition to the millions who were already doing so. Surveys have consistently indicated that more people intend to work from home more of the time. Most people feel just as productive, if not more so, when they do it.

Rapid changes in the nature of work are a key part of the context. Due to technological advances, increasing amounts of work can be done almost anywhere. This is going to increasingly affect the design of workplaces.

At the moment there is a natural focus on making workplaces safe to work in. But those who do come into the office to work will necessarily spend more time interacting with people who are working remotely. This means spending more time in virtual hybrid meetings, using collaborative software to support joint working and various levels of interactivity when working together.

The traditional desk layouts and typical meeting rooms do not support this kind of hybrid working well. There needs to be much greater variety of setting for different kinds of interaction, with good acoustics to contain the conversations and ensure privacy. Breakout areas need to be better designed to enable ad hoc meetings with colleagues working remotely.

There’s also a need for spaces that support high interactivity and innovation work, where some people may be on site while others – perhaps the majority of participants, are working remotely. They all need to be able to participate equally from wherever they are.

And while it’s generally accepted that focus work is often best done from home while the office is best used for collaboration and social interaction, when people come into the workplace for collaboration, they may also need to spend part of the time working on their own doing concentrated focus work.

So we need to move away from simplistic approaches to desk ratios (e.g. 7 desks for every 10 people) and categorisations of workers (e.g. fixed, flexible , remote), and start by analysing the work people do, where they do it, and the kinds of interactions between them.

Then we can work from that towards specifying the spaces, technologies and behaviours that will provide the most productive and engaging workplace experiences for all.