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Published 02.12.2021

Opinion — Now is our time: Let’s never go back to normal at work

Sometimes nothing happens for ten years. And sometimes ten years happen in three weeks. The quarantine was a massive eyeopener on the good and evil of the workplace. Everything that was wrong with the old way of working all of a sudden became very obvious. It’s time to not go back.

In the spring of 2020 the world conducted the biggest work-fromhome-experiment ever. The coronavirus made us all set up miniature offices at home. Work still happened, just at a different pace and under different circumstances. Less water-cooler conversation, less disturbance. More silence, more figuring it all out yourself.

During a few months we were involuntarily invited into colleagues’ and clients’ annexes, home offices, or living rooms for interactive meetings.
There was a lot of trial and error in the first few days and weeks. For a while the border between privacy and the workplace was blurry. “Do you hear me alright?” “Oh, that’s a cute wallpaper your daughter has.” “Sorry, my dog wants to say hello.” What we had previously considered private became involuntarily exposed to our colleagues.

Some people had a hard time getting things done because of the strange setup. Kids were around and required attention (and schooling!), connections were poor, the contact with colleagues was limited to the video check-ins every now and then.

Others had the time of their lives: No intrusive colleagues, no superfluous lunchtime conversation, and a complete absence of noise deriving from the open office plan and loud coworkers.

Businesses were quick to establish new routines. Daily calls, video meetings, deliverables on time. To keep the wheels turning the routines were still in place, just from a novel perspective. Most of us had to hit the ground running, and good and bad experiences were widely shared on social media.

But where some experiences were different depending on the home situation, lots of things were in common as well: It became evident for a lot of people that their job could just as well be done from home under the right circumstances, and that companies could actually still run with everyone working from home. The dreadful commute to and from the office was not missed. Meetings that should have been an email could actually be an email, or at least a drastically shortened video conference with room only for the essential. For good and for worse, the small talk that only adds up over time disappeared almost completely. It was down to business, and that proved to be really effective.

For design, furniture and architecture firms the consequences of the pandemic have become very obvious. There are now a range of new factors to take into consideration when creating spaces: It is no longer a given that we can meet physically like we did before. If we do, we have to be precautious and respect the distance. The idea of putting hundreds or even thousands of people in the same building may be a thing of the past. At least at the same time. When it is no longer a given that our colleagues are within arms reach when we need them, we have to find new ways to stay connected.
While COVID-19 is a human tragedy with profound consequences, it has also paved the way for innovations that might have already been in the pipeline, but slowed because of hesitant bureaucracy or old habits. Remote work is no longer a thing of the future, but an actual option that no longer should be considered a sensation. The immediate shift in connectivity proved that it didn’t take much: Video calls do the job, and a distributed workforce could very well be the new normal.

We could work from home forever. But we shouldn’t. Because we also learned to appreciate the elements that we missed from the office: Well-thought spaces for creating. Room for spontaneous knowledge sharing with colleagues. Or zones with room for contemplation and dwelling.

A smile in the mind: Multiple studies have shown that organisations that work with the design of the workplace generally have happier employees. If people are feeling happier in their workplace, then chances are they are less likely to feel stressed out and anxious about their job. And happiness leads to productivity: Workplaces with happy employees experience 31% higher productivity, according to a meta-analysis of 225 academic studies researching the effect of happiness.

We are in the business of creating workspaces where people come in most days to interact, contemplate and create. An effective workday is only so good if we also manage to add a human touch to it. As humans, the interaction with other people is the fuel that makes our engines run.

So what does this mean for our understanding of what an office is? What role is the physical workspace going to play in the near future? And most importantly: How do employers create a sense of belonging in a company where colleagues don’t meet everyday?

Employers now need to consider the occasional office; a physical place to come together to foster shared visions and leapfrogging, but not always a place for the 9 to 5 grind. Lots of tasks can be done from home (or a cafe, or a beach, or anywhere in the world, basically). The office should no longer be considered a place just for working – but also for thinking, talking, contemplating, dwelling, sharing, eating, creating, laughing and relaxing.
Right now is a really good time for companies to consider their physical office(s) a vital asset of their brand. A greatly designed office is not only important for the wellbeing and productivity of employees. It has the potential to attract the right talent, and retain the best employees for a longer time. And there is no element in a company’s brand that tells a more accurate story about who they are than where they live. Employers need to create a sense of belonging.

A sense of belonging happens when our values align with those expressed by others. Values not only as shared beliefs, but also carefully considered spaces and furniture created with humans in mind. The human-centric approach to thinking and designing spaces is more important than ever: We have to have areas that reflect and respond to our changing needs during a work day. As professionals we want to be able to fluctuate between deep work, impromptu meetings, relaxing conversations, rapid idea generation, and the occasional beer on Friday afternoon. We want to be heard. We want to express ourselves. We want to belong.

Tomorrow’s winning companies understand the importance of creating workplaces that meet the demand of a workforce with high expectations and very specific requirements. We need to create room for more than just cosy comfort, but work actively with flexible areas that create the best possible conditions for employees.
Sometimes nothing happens for ten years. And sometimes ten years happen in three weeks. The quarantine was the massive eyeopener on the good and evil of the workplace that we’ve been waiting for.
We must insist that remote working doesn’t have the ability to replace the office. We need physical places to meet, gather, interact, share knowledge, dwell, and produce. The importance of human interaction, whether it is spontaneous or planned, is priceless. The quarantine made us long for things to be normal. But let us take this unique opportunity to actually never go back to normal, and fix all the things at work that are not working. +

How do you change the world? Bring people together.

Where is the easiest big place to bring people together? In the work environment.

— Adam Neumann, WeWork