The Office is not Dead

The Liqui view on the future of workplace design

11/03/2021 - What will be the future of workspace design in a Covid era? Here is the point of view of Cameron Fry, Liqui Group’s Creative Director & Owner, and Oliver Underwood Design Manager, looking at some 2021 office trends.

To prevent the spread of Covid-19, 2020 witnessed a dramatic shift in where and how we work. For many, working from home became a requirement, one that necessitated change in the home environment. People without a dedicated office space commandeered their dining tables, kitchen worktops, sofas, and bedrooms, creating makeshift places of work. Official UK figures show that homeworking rose from 5.7% of people working at home in January/February 2020, to 43.1% in April 2020, following the introduction of the first lockdown (Felstead & Reuschke, 2020).

With a large-scale move to working from home, the very existence of the office as the default place of work has been called into question. In Liqui’s opinion, the office as an entity is not dead, however, it is reasonable to assume that a degree of homeworking is here to stay. Prior to the pandemic, there was already a gradual development in part-time working from home, a result of the increasing availability of tools that enable remote working, anytime and anywhere. The pandemic then acted as an accelerant, forcing a greater number of people to work in their place of residence. As many employees adapt to this new way of operating, a full-time return to the ‘9 to 5’ office will doubtless be unacceptable to some.

Since the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic, the world of work has been in turmoil. In the UK, the issue of homeworking has become something of a national discourse. Asked the question, ‘is remote working overhyped?’ Robin Dunbar, Emeritus Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, offered three reasons on why it is: ‘First, the work place is a social environment and business in any form is a social phenomenon; Second... for young new graduates moving to an unfamiliar city on their first job... work is the only place they can find friends and arrange social events; Third, the digital world of Zoom and Skype is no substitute for face-to-face meetings... people find the virtual environment awkward... there is a very strict limit on the size of natural conversations at four people’ (BBC Worklife).

A hybrid model
"At Liqui, we understand that working from home has its advantages, including feeling trusted by an employer, having flexibility, and greater autonomy. In spite of the possible downsides, such as a degree of boredom and loneliness, many people will doubtless choose to work from home if that choice is available. At the same time, we believe that homeworking does not surpass the office and its role as a place of work. Consequently, it is likely that we will see (and are seeing) the development of a hybrid model: a mix of working from home and at a company’s office. The very act of having employees under one roof is important for several reasons, including: maintaining a company’s culture, feeling a part of something bigger, sparking creativity, and fostering collaboration. Humans are social beings. Covid-19 has had a detrimental effect on the way in which we interact and communicate. The sudden growth in homeworking has taken a toll on mental health. People have reported that they are less able to concentrate, have greater difficulties in enjoying daily activities, feel constantly under strain, and are unhappy or depressed (Felstead & Reuschke, 2020).

We must think about the ways in which the office can adapt in order to maintain collaboration and exchanges with and between colleagues. Moreover, it is important to remember the value of those serendipitous and spontaneous encounters. While there is the need to maintain a physical distance (at least in the short-term), office design should continue to foster a sense of belonging. In many cases, the office is the embodiment of a company, and the place where employees come together. It provides a physical and psychological boundary between work and home life."

The future of workplace design
For Liqui, there are two key areas of focus in the future of workplace design: flexible working and wellness. Any changes will most likely be modest in scale—an evolution of what has already taken place in offices during the last decade.

Flexible working
With a flexible working arrangement, the employee might perform any focused work at home, and use the office for collective projects and meetings. Therefore, the office will become more of a collaborative hub, with employees no longer tethered to their desks. Hot-desking will find a renewed impetus, and employees will reserve a desk by using an app-based system—deep cleaning of desks and chairs, at least in the short-term, will be essential. Employees will have personal, movable storage pedestals for their belongings. The office will include a range of casual spaces that enhance creativity and cross-departmental collaboration. Smaller spaces will be used for videoconferencing and as audio privacy rooms.

It is important to address any feeling of impermanence in the flexible office space, offering employees security and warmth. At Liqui, we very much embrace the idea of the ‘coffice’, a portmanteau word combining coffee and office. Essentially, there are three types of spaces: home, work, and a third space. This third space is usually a coffee shop, a place in which to drink coffee and work. With technology, we have seen an increase in people choosing to work from a coffee shop. As a consequence, the line between the office and third space is becoming increasingly blurred. We believe this should be embraced. Instead of the sterile and rigid office of old, a flexible office will have more of a coffee shop feel. This will place an emphasis on employee well-being, on collaborative working, productivity, and staff retention.

"To an increasing extent, we live in an informed society. We are alert to the things that can affect our health and well-being. More and more, employees expect to find—and employers are keen to offer—choice and flexibility in their place of work, with a focus on wellness. Covid has exacerbated mental health concerns, increasing anxiety for many of us. Owing to a range of factors (including a predisposition to obsessive-compulsive behaviours, painful life experiences, and unemployment or loss of income), long-term mental health issues connected to Covid-19 are likely to include: obsessive-compulsive disorder, general anxiety, loneliness, stress, and depression (Savage, 2020). Employers cannot overlook these issues, and workplace designers must ensure they are embraced as part of any office design.

Our physical environment has a significant impact on our mental health and well-being. In the case of work, office design must place wellness at its core. Flexibility is key and can be delivered with a choice of work-based settings, from the home to the ‘coffice’. What’s more, the inclusion of well-designed furniture, acoustics, and lighting, and the addition of greenery, will help bolster employee well-being."

For Liqui, the future of workplace design is about stressing the importance of flexible working, wellness, and the office as a collaborative hub. "We know the office is not dead. In fact, we believe the office will be more alive than ever, and its design much more human-centred."

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