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  • Writer's pictureDr Lina Engelen

The office is dead, Long live the Office!

Has the elusive New Normal settled in where you are as yet? For me and many others, I think the Interim Normal still has the overhand. Although the New Normal office/working has been discussed and written about a lot in the last months (and I mean like 8-million-times-in-the-last-month-a-lot), we are mainly ‘crystal balling’ about what is to come. Many organisations are using this glimpse into another way of doing things to recalibrate and it seems clear that we don’t want to go back to how it was, pre-Corona. The New Normal for the office is yet to establish itself and even then, we have to consider that the New Normal is a moving target.

In the last few months there has been a lot of discussion about going back or not going back to the office. Some organisations have decided that their staff will not need to go back to the office at all, while others are preparing for the all their staff to return to the office. There have been numerous surveys about whether people want to go back to the office and if so, how many days per week. The surveys all point in the same direction; most people want to split their time between remote and office working.

We may have to rewire our brains as to what the office is; it will no longer be ONE location, there will be a range of physical and virtual locations that support functionality and choice.

The Office is more than one physical location. It is not just either at the central office or in your home office. That fact is that we should be able to work from anywhere, where organisations could provide access to a network of places to work. The Office could take on a hub and spokes model, where there is a central hub, the main office, that is set up for building culture, connections, social interactions, collaborations, celebrations, effective exchange of ideas and meeting clients. The spokes are a network of de-centralised hubs closer to where people live (see the idea of the 15-min cities). This could be satellite offices, or co-working spaces. This model would provide people with choice, empowering people to work how, where and when they want and need.

What is the purpose of the office?

Now we have an opportunity to rethink what we want our organisation to stand for. We should think about what the purpose of an office is? Why do we and our staff want to go to an office?

Three main reasons for wanting to return to the office (at least a few days a week) are:

- Informal social interactions

- Collaborations and

- A better set-up and more distraction-free environment

The office should hence focus on the, much needed, human and collective side, in combination with the functional and concentrated side of work. We need to think about what kind of activities need to happen at the central office and what things are done equally well elsewhere? It is important to understand what an organisation does and needs, and what the function of the workplace should be for that organisation. So, what does this mean for what the office should be or look like?

The design of the office

The office needs to consist of a combination of elements, such as spaces for concentrated work, spaces for social interactions and breaks, shared and innovative spaces, immersive technology and of course biophilia. The ratio of these elements would depend on the organisation, their activities and their needs.

The design of the office needs to be based on a combination of research, innovation and creativity. We need to ask the users of the space what they really need to do their work optimally. From previous research we have seen that, when at work, people feel most happy and creative when they are on a break. We should take this finding into consideration when designing our offices – what can we do to recreate that feeling of being on a break, while actually working to enhance creativity?

(Re)designing and (re)furbishing an office, whether this is the central or de-centralised office, is a time-consuming and costly exercise. There is therefore a good argument for creating pilot spaces, where new ideas and office designs can be trialled, tested and improved before a full roll-out.

In the past few weeks there have been countless webinars on the Future of the office and the Future of work, where the question “Is this the death of the office?” has been raised many, many times. All webinars I’ve attended and discussions I’ve had reach the same conclusion – no, this is not the final death of the office, instead it is the reincarnation of the office as a more functional and purposeful set of places to work, collaborate and to feel a sense of belonging. I am just hoping that organisations really are willing to take the leap, make the change and come out on the other side stronger and ready for the future.

We clearly have a long way ahead of us before the New Normal has become… well, normal. But born from such a global crisis, we have a unique opportunity to recalibrate and to create something better and healthier than we had before. Are you and your organisation up for the challenge?

I always like to have a chat about evidence-based design, research and advice for the workplace.


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