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What comes to your mind when you hear the word “office”? May 2020

By Dr Michelle Agha-Hossein, Building Performance Lead, BSRIA Sustainable Construction Group

Pre-COVID-19, optimising workspace to get the best value out of it was one of the most important matters to many organisations. At the moment, ensuring safe social distance between the employees is one of the crucial items on any organisations’ agenda.  But what about when the COVID-19 lockdown is over and we move to a “new normal”. What will the workplace of the near future look like?

In recent years, we have been witnessing great enthusiasm among building owners and operators for providing physical offices that can support employee wellbeing and productivity. Improvement of indoor air quality and access to daylight, provision of spaces for better collaboration and specifically designing layouts to encourage physical movement, are some of the wellbeing measures that have been recommended to improve the office space.

But wellbeing is not the only growing office trend. The way we work is changing due to the availability of advanced technologies, and it has hardly ever been so evident as during the COVID-19 pandemic. Forced by the COVID-19 lockdown, many organisations have shifted large parts of their operations to the digital mode introducing home working for those whose presence on premises was not essential. Digital platforms which provide employees with the capability to communicate, access and share documents from wherever they may be based, have, most of the time, proven their reliability.



It seems like the transformation of office-based working is in full swing. But remote working can have negative impacts on employees’ wellbeing if their work-life balance is not maintained. Reduced physical movement, for example, can affect employees’ physical health while lack of personal contact and the feel of loneliness can affect employees’ mental health. Trevor Keeling, Associate at BuroHappold and a wellbeing expert said “Some people will enjoy the lack of commute and additional time with family, while others might feel like they are working all the time. But if remote working is done correctly it can improve wellbeing.”

Maintaining a work-life balance is not the only challenge. Organisations need to ensure effective knowledge sharing and collaboration among their employees. Considering that collaboration goes beyond file sharing, can digital platforms enable employees to effectively communicate and share knowledge and experience?

Joe Jack Williams, a researcher at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, explained that “The social element of being [physically] with other people is far more important than is perhaps widely recognised, with informal knowledge sharing often more important than formal knowledge sharing. It's very difficult to capture physical interaction digitally with the same creative energy.” This element is key to driving employee engagement and keeping staff aligned with organisational goals. In agreement with this, Paul Langford, engineering director at Colt International, said that working from home ‘forever’ could be possible for some workers but “office dynamic will be lost, and the sense of team spirit will be diminished”. 

Therefore, working from home should not mean that employees must work only at home. In fact, splitting time between home and the office is perhaps the most productive solution. The vice chair of the CIBSE FM group, David Stevens, sees it unlikely that the majority of employers will move to permanent home working. “There is likely to be an increase in employee’s personal choice as to where they work to improve work-life balance. This goes hand in hand with a shift towards agile working by employers to increase capacity in offices.” he said. 

It is, however, inevitable that the demand for physical offices will decrease around the world. Current offices will need to be redesigned or repurposed. Considering that fewer designated individual physical workstations will be needed, more space could be allocated to physical group working activities and training instead. More social engagement can provide organisations with valuable insights and ideas from their talent pool and gives employees the opportunity to express their opinions and feel heard and valued. Professor Emeritus at University of Reading, Derek Clements Croome, explained “[An office] should provide social energy, should be a place for physical meetings and networking that generate ideas. This is more limited online. All those gestures and facial cues are missing online.”

The founder of Element 4 and a wellbeing expert, Georgia Elliott-Smith, went further and said “The office should be the heart of the organisation [and] a place that celebrates relationships, development and growth - a cultural and community hub.” 

When the demand for designated workstations is reduced, many organisations are likely to realise that they will not need to keep all their offices, especially when modern and creative coworking spaces are also growing. “Many offices should be turned into residential accommodation.” said Bob Swayne, the Principal Director at The Hampden Consultancy. To do this effectively, “M&E engineering skills are required for re-designing services within buildings previously used as offices and architectural and structural skills are needed in re-planning spatial co-ordination within buildings in order to comply with current Building Regulations and energy efficiency drives.” he added.

Work is now location-agnostic, and it can happen anytime and anywhere as long as the right technology is at hand. However, physical offices still remain essential to enable meaningful interpersonal relationships among employees to help them and their organisations thrive. Offices will not disappear, but they will change. Building services engineers, along with other professionals, will play a vital role in effectively transforming and repurposing current office buildings.  

Dr Michelle Agha-Hossein Building Performance Lead

Wellbeing

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