Do you remember that end-of-summer-feeling — the undeniable energy in the air that accompanied the return to school? Whether you were 10 or 21, it was exciting; a new schedule, socializing, and the energy on campus. Give it a few months, though, and the exhilaration wore off — the normalcy of school and the demands of rigorous coursework took over. According to Emily Dunn, a Denver-based workplace strategist for Herman Miller, returning to the workplace in a post-pandemic world is going to feel a lot like going back to school.
29 percent of professionals are reporting that they would rather quit their jobs than return to “normal,” according to a survey conducted in 2021 by LiveCareer.
While there is, understandably, a spectrum of feelings about returning to the physical workplace — ranging from enthusiastic anticipation to mild apprehension — there is no doubt that things will feel fresh and new at first, and then more routine in a few months’ time. Part of establishing, or re-defining, that sense of routine as professionals re-enter office spaces will be assessing how to preserve some of the conveniences that accompanied working from home.
Before the pandemic, convenience looked something like a 20-minute commute to the office, the opportunity to walk for 10 minutes to a favorite lunch spot or to pick up a child from daycare.
This begs the question, what does “convenience” mean? Before the pandemic, convenience looked something like a 20-minute commute to the office, the opportunity to walk for 10 minutes to a favorite lunch spot or to pick up a child from daycare. If we’ve learned anything this year, however, it’s that convenience isn’t one-size-fits-all, and that flexibility is the hot commodity everyone is talking about. In fact, 29 percent of professionals are reporting that they would rather quit their jobs than return to “normal,” according to a survey conducted in 2021 by LiveCareer. So, the question hangs in the air: If flexibility is the workplace amenity that everyone wants, what does that actually mean for the physical workplace and the mass return to the office?
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Job of the Office: Perspectives From a Workplace Strategist and a Book Designer
As the pandemic wanes, we are striving to understand the evolving “job of the office” — and to decide on the type of work we should perform in an office as compared to at home. Naturally, variety and choice take center stage; Dunn emphasizes these two notions as she explains how workplace strategists are conceptualizing office design in the coming months.
Dunn explains that planning workplace settings depends on the type of work you’re designing for — whether it’s for informal collaboration or formal presentations, and whether to allow for acoustical or visual privacy and so on. “All of those different things need to be thought about when you design particular settings, and how many people you’re designing for,” she adds.
Now, we’re adding a significant new element into the mix: the ability to work from home — and the allure that working at home has acquired in the past year.
Flexibility is about when people are coming in [to the office], what motivates them to come in, and what kind of spaces they need that are not being well-supported at home.
“It may be that those who have a great home setup choose to do more focus-based work at home, and then they come into the office to collaborate more. But there are also people who will come into the office to collaborate and only get a couple of things done, and then need the flexibility to spend time at home with their kids,” Dunn says. “Flexibility is about when people are coming in [to the office], what motivates them to come in, and what kind of spaces they need that are not being well-supported at home.”
The nature of work we do in an office, whether tactile work, visual work, spoken work or research-based work, will determine how time is spent in the office to get a job done effectively and productively. The final picture is likely to be highly individualized, because the job of the office has changed, possibly forever.
As a book designer, a lot of what I do depends on how the book looks as an object, all set and printed. Without access to the office printers, I haven’t really been able to see what my work over the past year actually looks like. It’s made working and feeling proud of what I’ve been doing a bit harder to realize.
Photo Credit: Lucia Bernard
For example, the transition to working from home when the pandemic hit in early 2020 was a big adjustment for Lucia Bernard, a book designer at Penguin Random House in Manhattan. Because her work is both highly tactile and visual, she is looking forward to going back to the office. “Transitioning to WFH during the pandemic was hard. In the office, I had a big Mac monitor and access to special paper and printers. As a book designer, a lot of what I do depends on how the book looks as an object, all set and printed,” she says, noting that pixels on a screen look very different from printed ink on paper. “Without access to the office printers, I haven’t really been able to see what my work over the past year actually looks like,” she says. “It’s made working and feeling proud of what I’ve been doing a bit harder to realize.”
This ability to take pride in one’s work is a critical consideration. But preserving the integrity of our work processes and deciding where that work occurs will need some renegotiation in a world where workplace expectations have radically changed.
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Talking Logistics: What Does Flexibility & Privacy Design Actually Look Like?
According to Gensler’s U.S. Workplace Survey for summer/fall of 2020, employees across industries have been eager to return to their workplaces, but are also anxious to maintain the benefits of flexibility and access to privacy that they enjoyed while they were working from home.
Once upon a time, professionals were bringing their work home with them. Now, maybe it’s time to bring home to work.
Dunn explains that she anticipates seeing more portable soundproof booths, for example, in offices that prioritize acoustical privacy for on-site employees. “People on-site are going to be connecting with others off-site a lot more, so planning rooms to have that technological interaction will be an important component,” she says. “You’ve got to think about how many people are going to be on-site and how many people are connecting remotely to a meeting.”
That being said, scheduling will be an interesting variable to navigate. Dunn notes that her clients have expressed concern that they would prefer to be in the office when the rest of their team is there, too. As a practical matter, though, how do they ensure that schedules align? “It’s not necessarily always about the design of the space, but the operations and the policies that dictate how behavior works in the space,” she says.
As companies like Google unveil plans for such amenities as privacy robots, team pods and balloon walls — a plan that resembles “Ikea meets Lego,” according to the New York Times — it’s clear that the standards for what the physical office space is expected to feel like, look like and provide is changing quickly. Once upon a time, professionals were bringing their work home with them. Now, maybe it’s time to bring home to work.
Defining the Elusive "Hybrid" Workplace
We know that our future in office space is moving toward a hybrid or “phygital” standard (that is, a mixture of physical + digital, a term that describes the blending of digital experiences with physical space). Executives across industries are defining what this means for their companies, while following through with decisions that they hope will yield positive and productive professional experiences for employees. This new era of a hybrid approach to where and how we get the job done leaves us with one thing for certain: the motivation behind returning to the office is two-pronged — there is both a “push” and a “pull.”
This new era of a hybrid approach to where and how we get the job done leaves us with one thing for certain: the motivation behind returning to the office is two-pronged — there is both a “push” and a “pull.”
We witness the “push” to the office in clear-cut policies, with promises that office fridges will be stocked and an assumption that the old cultural norms requiring presence in the office will return. However, the “pull” back to the office is a behavioral and a cultural shift that will require a fundamental understanding of how much talent values the new office amenities — like flexibility. Stocked break-room refrigerators, foosball tables and even office design are clearly not the amenities that will create the necessary “pull” back to the office that employers are looking for, or that employees want. This “pull” strategy is not a luxury, but a necessity; just ask the aforementioned 29 percent of professionals who would rather quit their jobs than return to “normal” (LiveCareer 2021).
However, the “pull” back to the office is a behavioral and a cultural shift that will require a fundamental understanding of how much talent values the new office amenities — like flexibility.
What will it look like for executives to bring their teams back to the “right" kind of hybrid work environments? How can flexibility in the workplace become a prioritized amenity, in and of itself? The search for the perfect hybrid workplace may go through many iterations, but one thing is certain: As humans, we are drawn to spending purposeful time with others in a common adventure, and in the end, this may be the main impetus that pulls us through the coming year.