Our offices are never going back to the way they were. The hard truth most companies don’t want to hear is that the ‘traditional’ office was never any good to begin with. Our radical collective experiment in hybrid work in the midst of a pandemic has laid bare the problems inherent in the traditional office model. “One of the things the pandemic has taught us is that the modern workplace was broken to begin with,” ROOM Co-founder Morten Meisner-Jensen said. “There was an overall lack of productivity, increased stress and virtually no privacy. An overall migration from cubicles to open offices without considering the necessary environments had a ton of negative effects to it.”
In the past it was hard to see a better way because there was no other way. Breaking out of a traditional office mindset required a global catastrophe. Forced to adapt to a new way of working, employees and companies have learned what can be achieved in non-traditional office settings. The office will be a critical part of operations moving forward but how workers interact with the workspace will continue to fundamentally change. Research shows employees expect to return to a hybrid work environment, not the traditional work environment they left. Approximately 83 percent of American companies said their business is considering implementing flexible work at a greater scale than prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent Mercer survey.
Even when employees do return to the office they will demand more flexible, adaptable and connected workspaces. Making our buildings smarter will help but to do this we also need flexible, adaptable and connected furniture. The changing interaction between employees and their workspace will require us to rethink everything we thought we knew about furniture. Bench desks, cubicles and over-sized conference rooms lined with chairs once dominated the office environment but shifting work habits will change that. That time is coming to an end.
“What we’ve come to realize is the traditional workplace before COVID, like bench style seating, meeting rooms, a reception area, it’s been fairly simple, and it’s not very good at inviting employees back,” Meisner-Jensen said. “What we’re seeing now in planning for a workspace post-COVID, is the need to look at how the space offers not just functional needs but also inspires people.”
Take a look at Zoom’s share price if you doubt the future of video conferencing. The office is not returning to 100 percent density, which means offices need to be prepared for a much higher rate of video conferencing for employees working elsewhere. Expect someone to dial-in for every meeting. Functionally that will look like more phone booths, huddle rooms and focus areas filled with flexible, adaptable furniture to meet every worker’s different needs.
“There’s an expectation of moving towards a hybrid approach, offices are going to have to figure out how to deal with that,” Vari Chief Revenue Officer Sean Scogin said. “It’s an opportunity from a flexibility perspective.” Behind the widely successful “Vari-desk” standing desk converters, Vari has been pioneering adaptable office furniture long before the pandemic. Vari’s business has been strong since the outbreak as workers outfit their homes with office furniture, sales of Vari’s electric standing desk are up 300% during the pandemic, Scogin told Propmodo. That’s a sure sign office workers want flexibility and adaptability in their office furniture. Workplace furniture is not trending bigger or smaller, but more adjustable. Being able to customize your workspace at the office will help bring workers back from home, where they’ve been customizing their offices just how they like them for months.
“As the pandemic pushed everyone home, individual productivity is way up, but strategy and collaboration is a struggle,” Scogin said. “The workspace used to be a destination, now it’s a tool. Companies are going to have to dig in and figure out.”
An array of new sensors will also play a new role in the reconfigured office. Occupancy sensors, foot traffic monitoring and other forms of IoT-connected devices attached to furniture will give office managers and business owners an overview of daily operations, allowing them to track productivity and adapt layouts to fit new uses. Say an office manager notices staff likes to linger before or after a meeting to connect with a few people specifically. An adaptable office can shift a few light chairs and a table to create an informal lounge area to foster those productive interactions. Sensors in focus rooms can tell you were best to place them, away from common areas and near windows. Offices will need more small huddle rooms for 2-4 person video calls. Data shows almost 80% of meetings are between 1-4 people. Oversized meeting rooms with enormous tables and rows of chairs can be repurposed into smaller huddle rooms. Gone will be the days of one person taking up the large conference room because it’s the only room with video conferencing capabilities. Smarter decisions with office furniture and interior architecture lead to less wasted real estate.
“Look at modular furniture from a floor plate perspective, it frees up space by using smaller units that take up less space,” Meisner-Jensen said. “With more phone booths, huddle rooms and focus areas, you have less disturbing calls, less meeting room congestion and a better workplace experience for one-on-one conversation. It’s all about getting more out of your square footage.”
Scogin said for every office project Vari works on, they offer two space plans. One for today with flexible walls and acrylic panels for a safe work environment and then one based on flexibility to reconfigure into what they need in the future. ROOM’s own purpose built booths and conference rooms come fully connected for video conferencing and sensors, able to move around as adaptive architecture like LEGO blocks, giving business the ability to reconfigure the architecture of their indoor space as the companies needs shift.
“The reason why people want to return to work is because they’re missing the collaboration,” Meisner-Jensen said. “We will return to work for more in person collaboration, the environment will need to reflect that. More huddle areas, more larger conferences. Community based lounge seating for spontaneous encounters.”
The return to the office is a huge opportunity for business owners, landlords and facility managers to reconfigure the office for a more productive and inspiring work environment. Perhaps never again will there be a time when offices are empty and we have the opportunity to build back a better way of working. With the rise of coffee shops, home offices, co-working and the like, the workplace is being divorced from the workspace. The office must adapt to become more than a place to simply be present at. Furniture that fosters interaction and promotes collaboration that workers will expect from the office of the future.