In 2021, CEOs are already hard at work transitioning the workforce back into the office. Offices will reopen based on three reasons that include: productivity, culture, and retention. Work from home was attractive prior to the pandemic in a flex-work model, but now that many have experienced it full-time, the realization that an all-and-nothing strategy isn’t favorable.
Zoom calls dominate the day with actual work happening around them. Colleague relationships suffer with lack of natural exchanges. And with nearly everyone having a similar experience, company’s struggle to differentiate beyond salary in meaningful ways. The office is more than a destination, it plays a significant role in the company experience, culture, values, and services. The desire to return is near-universal.
Here are four office trends we will see in 2021:
- The return will be gradual – and pick up as the calendar flips to 2022.
The introduction of a vaccine has some expecting a return to 2019-normalcy, but nothing could be further from that vision. The office is forever changed, and the virus is one that regardless of vaccine will continue to be present and need managing. We predict the earliest we’ll see people getting back to the office in any significant way will be the third quarter of 2021. It’ll be low, 25 percent or so of the workforce, and it will slowly ramp up from there.
Working in the office will be designed as an as-needed destination and for those people who need the office for productivity – the dynamic office will be in play. The Dynamic Office will leverage concepts of remote working, flex work, and office designs we’ve seen before, but it’s primary differentiation will be its tech enablement. The Dynamic Office will require employers to rethink the purpose of the office to provide employees with an as-needed workplace for a variety of new workflows.
Being able to use different spaces in a concierge-like fashion to support individuals and teams. The office will now support the employee in real-time, responding to their needs and adjusting over time. The Dynamic Office will also seek to adjust the office footprint to smaller spaces. For some companies that will mean having more office locations closer to where employees live. It will mean giving employees the opportunity to work from a variety of spaces, as needed, to suit their preferences, workflows, and balance with their personal life.
Service-based firms like agencies, consultancies and law firms will be first to bring people back to support their revenue and delivery models. Technology companies will be next, investing in virtualized office solutions to enable work-from-anywhere experiences in the office.
- The spotlight will be on workplace experience managers.
A role that was once seen only at larger companies with huge real estate portfolios, will now emerge as a strategy role that increasingly informs technology and operations decisions for companies of any size. Prior to the pandemic, this role walked a fine line between raising the employee: desk ratio while balancing the employee experience. Now, this role will increasingly leverage emerging data and technology to redesign the office experience, support employee productivity, and rationalize the real estate portfolio under a never-beforehand set of workplace behaviors.
- Filling productivity gaps will be a technology imperative.
The new normal of an office, will be entirely abnormal. With flexible schedules, and most employees only returning two-to-three days a week, the requirements of an office will change with every combination of people in it – every day. It will be like rolling the dice. Data, that understands how people use the office, and can predict behaviors, will be the thread that ties resources to employee productivity together. Companies that don’t invest, will be unable to accurately understand how their investment in the office space and facilities maps to their projected growth and employee needs.
- Interconnected offices will emerge.
The tools to build smart office buildings are already here but have not been integrated into complete suites. This will change. Technologies including meeting room solutions, virtualized office, security, and location data will converge to create a digital experience for employees no matter where or when they are working. The office will be available at any time, resources can be booked and found at any location, and companies will see a natural redistribution of employee behaviors as a result. Companies that can look beyond their legacy systems that often don’t interconnect, will out compete in terms of productivity, employee satisfaction, and competitiveness. Traditional ways of operating are receding as a younger generation of leaders bring a tech-focused mindset to the forefront. Expect greater creativity in operations than ever before, particularly if it boosts the bottom line.
Right now, companies are in short-term urgency, figuring out how a return to work might look, how to turn the corner from 2020. They are consumed by immediate challenges like an ongoing pandemic, vaccine effectiveness and official regulations around density and occupancy. Long-term thinking is where new ideas will take hold.
We have just gone through the biggest work-from-home exercise. Outside of hospitals, grocers and essential services, businesses big and small were thrust into virtual operations. A narrative quickly built that companies would forever be virtual and most offices would be empty forever more. But as the panic subsided, and the months dragged on, we’ve come to realize the office has tremendous benefit to employees. It offers respite from the home, a destination for collaboration, and an area where focus can be achieved.
Written by James Wu.