Does the “new normal” mean the beginning of the end of traditional offices?

September 23, 2020.

Author: Damjan Geber, CEO & Creative Director

Every year there is a phrase that creeps into every conversation with people who want to give the impression that they understand the world around them and that they are always one step ahead of others. Phrases like Omnichannel, Internet of Things, Activity-based Working and the like are generally untranslatable phrases that have had their few months of fame. Such a term for the current year, which will conquer all the others and unfortunately deservedly take the buzzword throne in 2020, is definitely the term NEW NORMAL. Is this new normality really so new (compared to some old one) and is it at all about normality or is there an anomaly ahead of us in the process of human development?

A lot will change for us in the days, months or even years ahead of us, but a lot has actually already changed for us in the last few decades without us even being aware of that. Probably because these changes came to us relatively slowly, unobtrusively, without such psychologically intense side effects as a global pandemic and stopping ordinary life without an unprecedented one in Earth's history. If we just try to remember how we behaved before continuous internet connectivity or before mobile phones in general, before low-cost airline flights, China as a global economic power, shopping malls, computers and hundreds of other mini revolutions, the “new normal” is in fact just another “normality” in a series of many that await us.

However, one of the key spheres of our daily lives on which Covid will leave a serious mark and launch us into a new era is the way we work, i.e. the way we conceive work and workspace. There has never been such a thorough global experiment in history that has put real people and companies to the test in real time. For years, a winning model for the “Office of the Future” has been sought from the Silicon Valley and the famous Google and Facebook offices, through co-working franchises, glass skyscrapers of London and Milan, unlimited office budgets in Dubai or Shanghai to the hi-tech/zen hybrids of Japan. Traditionally, offices have been a mix of workspaces and meeting rooms with as many employees as possible on as small floor area as possible, to make the investment cost-effectiveness calculations as affordable as possible. Back then the basic needs of employees such as lighting, ergonomic chairs and sufficient amounts of fresh air were also considered, but more or less this was all the luxury that managements provided to lower-ranking colleagues. We all remember how popular the cubicles around the tables inside the open-space offices were in the 1980s and how we were watching American shows and movies and made comments about how we could never work in such a space. However, if we still continued to use them today, we would be able to return to our workplace without fear of becoming infected.

So, what kind of workspace awaits us in the period ahead? To begin with, we need to split the answer to that question in two key periods: a near future in which companies have already initiated the processes of returning employees to offices, and a slightly less close future in which work and workspace as we know it will adapt to the new normality. After decades of working exclusively in the office, and now thanks to the pandemics we have come to know the benefits of working from home, it's time for a third course - hybrid work, based on detailed task planning and balancing needs between focused work from home and collaborating in a stimulating workspace.

The results of a survey regarding the experiences employees have with working from home show that over two-thirds of those who have never worked from home before want to continue doing so at least one day a week in the future. There is no winning formula with an ideal day timetable to work from home during the week that would be applicable to all companies. An individualized approach is needed in the analysis of work processes, technological solutions for resource planning, the concept of the workspace, etc. It should certainly be considered that people need other people, employees need physical contact with other colleagues to feel they belong to the team. The uniformed experience of working from home and from the office does not necessarily mean that offices must look like living rooms, and apartments branded with inspirational corporate messages, I will once again reiterate that an individualized approach to finding an adequate strategic concept for each work organization is essential.

The shock that the pandemic brought and the disruption of normal work processes in practically one day, without notice or preparation, caused that the vast majority of companies had to adapt on the fly to new working conditions. Some were lucky and had this type of work from home already implemented, so their adjustment was simpler, but few had dislocated teams longer than a couple of days a week. Some of the key things we immediately noticed and set as a priority for adapting to the new conditions as quickly as possible are the daily video contact of teams in a defined time, adapting homes to create the best working environment, taking home the office ergonomic chairs, fast and stable internet, and the like. Working in your apartment, from the sofa or dining table has a lot of advantages. Primarily, there is the increased productivity in the focused, individual segment of business, the ratio of work time and personal time is much more favourable, much less time and money are spent on commuting to work or coffee with colleagues, and a number of other benefits that we may not have been aware of before. However, it is much harder to be productive when it is necessary to collaborate on team projects, when you need help from a colleague to solve the problem, when a partner in a small apartment has a video call at the same time as you or when you have to help your kids with their school assignments.

Forced long-term work from home also made us aware of the amount of time we spend on various calls, texting in groups, and replying to emails that can take your whole day. Suddenly we don't need more than half an hour on Zoom or Teams to tell each other everything that's important to continue working on the project, we can arrange changes on the project even through virtual comments, without having to travel to a coordination meeting in Split or London, and the key to everything is to plan effectively our own time and other people's time.

According to some international research, more than 50 percent of employees cannot return to their jobs if the guidelines of the Crisis Management Units and the World Health Organization are respected. This means that all companies will have to develop highly innovative strategic plans to reorganize their operations and the workspaces themselves.

We can't increase office square footage by 50 percent so that everyone can get to work while meeting all the regulations, and we can't even force employees to return to a work environment that doesn't give them the balanced life they're now used to. The solution is to use all of these findings to initiate fundamental changes in the organization of optimal business premises and work processes that are tailored to the needs and expectations of all of us.

The search for an optimal office space, which with the least necessary square footage provides maximum comfort to employees who are expected to be as productive as possible, has been going on since modern offices exist. Each company wants to reduce the cost of real estate as much as possible, while attracting the best talents to these spaces who will feel so motivated that they will create ever-increasing added value every day. From colourful offices that looked more like playrooms and amusement parks, to hi-tech glass skyscrapers that abound in technology, and the latest trend of Activity-based Working, the goal has always been the same - to keep people in the workspace as long as possible because it's the only way to be more productive. The changes happening now will accelerate the abandonment of most such “innovative” solutions and will start creating offices focused on people and processes that respond to the real needs of employees, not just corporations. Right now, it's time for creativity and innovation to make offices more functional, rationalize the necessary square footage and create a higher quality corporate culture.

Moving tables and defining hygiene rules is the least of the challenges. In order to maintain or improve the existing quality of work and agency culture in such an environment, it is necessary to take into consideration various aspects, including a large team of employees with whom we are jointly designing a new normal workplace. The times when office spaces were designed according to a project task prepared by the management or the real estate sector, with charts with the required number of tables, meeting rooms and offices for managers, became truly a thing of the past... and to figure that out probably we didn't need this coronavirus situation.

Finally, it is very likely that this terrible virus will return and that we must be prepared for that, and companies that will find themselves off guard again in the next wave of pandemics will not have too much chance to survive in the “new normal” market. Take care of your employees, listen to them, customize the workspaces to their real needs, and don’t just copy a cool design of California’s startups, because the workspace is our second home, and that means it’s much more than just a beautiful photo.