With the global economy sputtering to life after months of pandemic-enforced shutdown, the future of the office space is being called into question. Forced to work from home, many white-collar employees have done so efficiently and have developed a taste for it. Some employers have taken to the idea as well and are moving to make such arrangements more or less permanent.

But workplace experts say it’s premature to declare offices obsolete. Any predictions being made now about the office’s future are purely speculative.

Ontario is allowing offices to open, but a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development says the province is not enforcing restrictions on the number of employees in a given space. Instead, the government is recommending that employers follow social distancing protocols and discourage the sharing of office equipment. Companies are also encouraged to implement strict cleaning standards and communicate those with staff. Toronto Mayor John Tory has urged major employers to keep workers home until September at the earliest. 

At some point, however, organizations are going to start wanting their employees to come back — and workers are going to want to return, according to several surveys. In a recent poll of more than 2,600 office workers in the United States, San Francisco architecture firm Gensler says only a minority of respondents — 12 % — said they wanted to work from home permanently. About 70% wanted to go back to the office for three days a week or more.

The company expects similar results from a poll being conducted in Canada, mainly because both employees and employers have found remote work negatively affecting several aspects of business, says Annie Bergeron, design director and principal in Gensler’s Toronto office. Employees may focus on their own work better at home, but they aren’t collaborating, learning or socializing, she says. Those things help develop a sense of team and lead to innovation, which is the lifeblood of many businesses.

“A lot of companies are running on the fumes of the social capital they invested in before this happened. They’re starting to see it’s difficult for people to truly collaborate long-distance,” Bergeron says. Innovation isn’t “tied to whether you have Mensa members or MIT degrees, it’s about having trust and empathy with your co-workers.”

Tech companies that are shifting to a more permanent work-from-home strategy tend to have a higher tolerance for failure and are able to experiment, she says. They may have to learn the value of collaborative offices the hard way before ultimately converting back to a more traditional work system.

Despite that, Gensler believes that employees will indeed work from home more often when they need to focus, which means that many office spaces will be reconfigured to encourage collaboration, Bergeron says. It could mean fewer devoted desks, a tradeoff that employees will have to make to work from home.

Shared workspace provider iQ Offices also says people want to return to offices. The company recently surveyed its users and found that 93% don’t want to work from home full-time.

Organizations that are moving toward permanent work-at-home arrangements aren’t considering the development or fostering of their cultures, or employee retention and mental health, says iQ chief executive Kane Willmott.

“The office is a key component of creating corporate culture,” he says. “There’s a social element, and culture and community element, that is very difficult to replicate digitally. Communities require proximity.”

Boston-based architecture firm SGA says many clients in the United States and Canada are in a holding pattern with respect to their offices. They’re waiting to see what local governments will require and what best practices emerge. Many are opting for temporary measures such as signs and marking social distancing areas on floors with tape.

Longer term, Gable Clarke, director of interior design and partner at SGA sees companies investing in better air filtration systems and sensor technologies that can help limit the spread of germs, such as automatic door openers and paper towel dispensers in bathrooms. She agrees with other observers that some desk space will be repurposed for collaborative workspaces and meeting areas, combined with more work-from-home options.

“The office is not dead, we just see it as evolving,” she says. “I don’t think the pendulum will swing all the way back to where we were, but I don’t think we’re going to completely change how the office looks.”

Source: The Star