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COVID-19 has hit us hard. From transforming your home into a make-shift office, balancing personal and work lives, to mask-wearing and safe distancing measures in the workplace, everything about the way we work has changed.
After months of working from home, some organizations have announced permanent work from home policies for the rest of the year, while others begin to think about transitioning back to the office.
Despite the growing demand for and adoption of remote work, our research suggests the office is here to stay. We spoke to 25 business leaders and surveyed over 500 respondents across the Asia Pacific (APAC) and the ability of their company to continue to support flexible working arrangements, alongside a return to the office, was ranked by 99 per cent of respondents as 'fairly important'.
Other top concerns include safety of the workspace and managerial support.
In balancing the return to the office with remote working, it is important to recognize and identify new work patterns and behaviors that your employees have already formed. This may mean that the office and its fundamental purpose will likely look radically different both in the short and long term. Other top concerns include safety of the workspace and managerial support.
So, how do employers tap into these insights to create future thinking workspaces that will stand the test of time?
This pandemic has served as a harsh reminder of the importance of building resilience into an organization, which would allow companies to quickly adapt in periods of crisis and change. The idea of resilience also applies to the physical workspace.
Now, more than ever, businesses need to consider their real estate differently, think beyond space, and plan for workplace strategies enabling flexibility to make the work environment as productive as possible as circumstances evolve.
Through our leadership interviews and employee surveys across APAC, we've found that while the majority of people and organizations have adapted well to remote work in the short term, a deeper appreciation for, and varied expectations of, working in the office has developed.
Time working remotely has highlighted how unplanned, organic social interactions in the office can be fundamental drivers for collaboration, creativity, and culture. Our research shows this is something we deeply miss. In designing the workplaces of the future, organizations must create workspaces to facilitate these types of interactions that are not achieved remotely.
At a high level, this should involve a fundamental shift in the ratio of workspaces for most organizations to reduce the number of individual fixed desks in favour of more shared spaces for collaboration and high-activity social areas such as on-site cafes.
Design elements like open spaces, atriums, shared workspaces in common areas, staircases with seating, and outdoor workspaces can help create an environment that encourages people to work together by locating desirable amenities in diverse locations, and facilitating "casual collisions" throughout the workday to promote teamwork and increased collaboration.
By building resiliency into physical workspaces, organisations can create an agile workplace strategy that allows us to continuously learn, prepare, and adapt for the future.
To put it simply: people are the heart of any organization and the end-users of the spaces we design and work in. As organizations approach new ideas about workplace strategy it is imperative to keep employees' needs at the heart.
It was no surprise to learn through our research the foremost concern shared by both employees and leaders about returning to the office is ensuring health and safety. Beyond immediate and mandated measures to create a safe environment, ensuring that the office is a comfortable and stress-managed environment, is crucial.
Organizations should consider communicating these new ways of working in a way that reduces negative impact on the employee experience. For example, safe circulation through and around shared spaces can be addressed through playful graphics that reinforce social distancing guidelines with a sense of humour that help to create a positive and pleasant work environment.
Taking it one step further, color psychology can be applied in the workplace to help designate behaviors to specific zones in the office without having to directly tell or remind.
Organizations may choose to implement a coloured wristband system where the use of colour and material choice can inform people of their personal safety space and communicate, in an intuitive manner, the norms of behavior in different areas.
Given the uncertain environment we work in currently, employees face a mountain of concerns every day. Outlining and executing clear expectations in returning to the New Normal for their working lives is a crucial first step in easing these professional anxieties.
To help employees navigate changes to office layouts, workplace practices, and ways of working, organizations need to clearly communicate, train, and regularly remind staff on clear plans that address the who, what, when, where and how of their return to work strategies.
Regular check-ins between managers and their team members will help organizations stay up to date on the concerns of employees in order to quickly address problem areas and ensure a smooth transition to new ways of work.
To further support employee well-being, organisations should look to provide access to mental health support and wellbeing programs to help alleviate both personal and professional challenges.
With many companies globally undertaking a journey of workplace transformation at the same time, it may be tempting for organisations to plan their transformation around what other successful companies have done.
However, every company is unique, from the type of work they do, to the real estate they have to work with, and so there will be no one-size-fits-all solution to the future of the workplace.
To inform workplace strategy, thorough research to gather reliable data about what employees need and how they work best is required.
Based on the findings, companies should then pilot their workplace solutions in stages, for example, allocating one or two floors of a building to experiment with the changes before implementing them organisation-wide.
This creates agile workspaces to fulfil short to mid-term organisation goals and use each stage to learn and inform the next transformation.
Organizations will need to work diligently to quickly identify opportunities for change, test solutions, evaluate the results, and reiterate as needed to find the best strategy that brings out the best results for their business and people.
Although we have figured out how to work apart after months of remote working, the office is certainly not going to be a thing of the past. Our research and experience have shown there are elements of working together in an office that remote working simply cannot replicate.
Despite varying cultures, behaviours and government mandates, we strongly recommend working through a three-pronged approach: putting people before space, building nimble, purposeful workspaces and testing solutions prior to implementation.
By embracing this approach and developing solutions with greater care, organizations would be able to implement innovations that best suit their unique needs, building workspace resilience amidst an uncertain future.