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Workplace New Normal

Innovations & Flexibility — The new-look workplace

In modern times, there has been a gradual realisation as to the importance of an employee’s workplace environment. With the continued prevalence of this ‘workplace’ being the office (rather than a factory, field or mine), the discussion has often centred around how the office space can be improved and how to measure the impact that this has on the workers.

The need for a healthy workplace environment

One of the clearest examples of this line of thinking was the workplace transition from cubicles to a more open-plan layout. Of course, the line of reasoning behind this was that it would create a more sociable environment, fostering relationships between employees and moving away from the grim picture portrayed in 90s films such as Office Space.

By creating a more collaborative atmosphere, employers aim to increase productivity and creativity between different employee teams. A consensus has now formed that an engaged employee, supported by their colleagues, has increased usefulness to their company.

Companies like Google Shouldn’t Be Exceptions

A well-known proponent of this approach is Google. Innovators in many aspects have long been famed for their bold & fresh approach to the workplace environment. According to Business Insider, more than 64,000 Google employees can take advantage of perks like free healthy and gourmet meals, laundry and fitness facilities, generous paid parental leave, and on-site childcare. This flexibility, willingness to adapt, & openness to feedback is all designed around the belief that if an employee is in the best possible working environment, he will produce work that is the best they can do.

Whilst a lot of these developments have been driven by a perhaps slightly cynical approach (the companies only designing a good workplace environment in order to generate more profits), there has, in modern times, also been a greater understanding of the employer’s responsibilities. Recognising that an employee will spend a large amount of their life in a workplace, coupled with a greater understanding and acceptance of the importance of good mental health, has led to many companies, unions, and governmental bodies devoting resources to provide a better standard of the workplace environment.

The New Approach to Office Working

‘Flexible Working’ is the new buzzword when it comes to how companies will be responding to the current climate. This means re-thinking the traditional ideas and expectations surrounding employees and the office. For example, it is likely that the expectation of employees coming into the office 9–5, 5 days a week, will no longer apply. A recent YouGov poll of 4,500 employees, in fact, found that 81% of respondents expected to work from home at least one day a week post-lockdown, with 33% expecting to work from home at least three days a week. Indeed some companies such as Twitter have gone even further than this and declared that nearly all of their employees will be working from home for the foreseeable future.

This trend is likely to lead to offices being used more as a hub, rather than the place where you spend all your working time. All kinds of meetings, social events, and other group tasks can be carried out in the office space, with the day-to-day work carried out by workers who are working from home. This balance can be extended to other benefits as well — office space can be tailored or redesigned so that it caters to activities centred around well-being & mental welfare e.g. creative activities or sporting activities like the gym. To summarise, employees would no longer feel ‘forced’ to come to work, only making the commute when it is beneficial to both their work & overall well-being.

New Office Innovations

Of course, for when employees do need to come into the office, significant changes will have to be made to satisfy some of the new requirements mentioned above.

A business would firstly have to think about tailoring the office to suit flexible working schedules. Secondly, for people who are unsure about coming back into the office during this pandemic, they are going to have to make concessions in order to make them feel more comfortable about doing so.

When it comes to adapting to flexible-working employees, companies will have to think about how to make the workspace more dynamic & more employee-focused. This could be achieved by changing the layout of desks and eating & break rooms. A great demonstration of this is some of the recommendations made by Woods Bagot — visualising a number of different ways in which offices could look in the near future.

One of their designs, called ‘Community Nodes’, has particular relevance to the flexible worker. The nodes, or hubs, would be smaller workspaces that are closer to an employee’s apartment or house.

“With our reduced desire to use public transport and be among large groups of people, the future in this model is more distributed than consolidated,” the studio added. “Its focus is on smaller satellite, community-based offices.” These ‘Nodes’ would consist of a central office, along with smaller offices situated closer to employees’ homes.

Another approach would be to install specific facilities that both boost employee health & well-being and make the office a more attractive space for employees to travel to. Examples of this are fitness facilities, as well as spaces where an employee can either nap (to boost productivity) or sleepover (if they are commuting a long distance just for a couple of days)When looking to carry out this redesign, companies can look to co-working spaces such as WeWork, who have already been implementing a form of this for quite a while now.

The other consideration, with regards to making a workspace pandemic-safe, can be tackled in a number of different ways. They can range from relatively simple, to fairly complex redesigns of the entire space. On the simple side, furniture and desks can be rearranged in order to maintain social distancing & increase personal space, whilst allowing for areas for colleagues to socialise in, if they want to. For a more thorough and potentially complex solution, a company could utilise soundproof pods as a little private work station (something we can supply), and technology solutions such as applications/software for managing the flow of employees & reporting any cleaning or safety issues.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has also published a tool kit for safely re-opening offices as restrictions begin to ease. It includes using physical barriers, staggering schedules for employees, limiting the use of air conditioners and using operable windows for natural ventilation.

Conclusion

Many companies that operate in the dark will need a bit of giving and take from them both. Look towards the tech companies, say in Silicon Roundabout, to see what they are doing, how they are innovating and how they adapt their workplace environment. It may be a lot of trial and error. For certain, though, employee mental health & well-being has never been as important and discussed as a topic as it is right now.

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