The recent coronavirus pandemic has caused changes that have, at least temporarily, reshaped the roles of and boundaries between the different sectors of life. One significant change has been that our home environments have had to adopt several new roles, such as functioning as a place of work. We have seen the pandemic pushing the shift towards remote work and utilization of digital technology forward. A commonly shared view is that this trend is likely to continue also after the pandemic. But what kind of effects will this have on people and the way we collaborate, and what kind of options are there?
As one of the main goals of Living+ Platform is to promote trans-disciplinary and cross-sector encounters and collaboration, we are particularly curious to explore these questions. Already the first wave of the pandemic sparked several speculations regarding the future of work and workplace, and this essay will explore some of the main points from those discussions. While we see some unanimity regarding the future of remote work, the roles given to the office are more varied.
The advantages and problems of remote working
There are both advantages and disadvantages to a more intense use of technology replacing some or all physical presence at the workplace. An obvious benefit is that it decreases or even eliminates the risk for contagion at work. Some of the other benefits for employees include savings in time and money spent on commute as well as flexibility, which enables adjusting work schedule to individual lifestyles and situations (Connley 2020; Harper 2020). For employers, remote work allows significant savings in real estate costs, and – with employee’s location having a diminished importance – expands the group of potential employee candidates (Boland et al. 2020).
However, increasingly relying on technology and working from home also blurs the lines between private life and work and might undermine privacy. Some of the most frequently mentioned disadvantages of teleworking relate to social aspects such as feelings of isolation or loneliness (e.g. Beekmans et al. 2020), as it can be more challenging to build connections or maintain a sense of community when using only digital tools. Although video conferencing tools have become widely used and technology offers solutions that facilitate teamwork, there are still aspects in face-to-face collaboration that are difficult if not impossible to replace.
As working from home is not a sustainable – or even possible – option for many people (for instance, due to the type of job or the lack of suitable working environment at home), how can the workplace adjust to the situation, and what kind of changes should we expect in a long term?
Designing pandemic-proof offices?
One perspective on the future of physical workplace focuses on taking a clear step back from open-floor offices due to the risks they pose for contagion, and on different ways to “virus-proof” the office. These can include methods such as physical design, higher standards for hygiene and guiding the movements around the office in order to maintain a safe distance between the employers (Tranel 2020; Holder 2020). While some of the methods such as using an improved air-filtration system, utilizing touchless elements such as doors, or implementing more outdoor spaces (Tranel 2020; Wells 2020) seem only sensible ways to protect people’s health, the effects of others are not as unambiguous. The problem is that some of the rather commonly suggested design solutions – separating people by partitions and placing them inside private cubicles in order to offer some shield – can be detrimental to collaboration and community building, which for many are prominent factors making commute to the workplace worthwhile in the first place.
Office as a place to socialize and collaborate
Another perspective on the future of workplace steers into a different direction by considering the added value that being present at the workplace can bring as opposed to working from home. Even as the digital tools for meetings and teamwork as well as people’s skills to use them have developed during the lockdown, it is widely acknowledged that this has not eliminated the need for face-to-face collaboration and socializing at the workplace (e.g. Beekmans et al. 2020, McLaurin 2020). Instead, the pandemic and lockdown might have in fact led to a new appreciation of in-person encounters with your colleagues (Connley 2020; Liu 2020b) as well as of sense of belonging evoked by being physically present at the workplace.
Therefore, it is suggested that the post-pandemic office should have an emphasis on the social aspects and focus on providing spaces that are optimal for collaborative work and community building (Boland et al. 2020; McLaurin 2020). For individual work, people could continue to work remotely and gain savings in travel time, as well as avoid unnecessary risks of exposing themselves or others to the virus. Instead of isolating people from each other at the workplace by walls, however, this point of view recognizes the importance of face-to-face collaboration also in the future. In addition to applying basic safety measures such as improved hygiene standards, it focuses on reducing the health risks by limiting the visits to the workplace mainly to collaboration purposes and regulating the number of employees simultaneously present.
Workplace entering the neighbourhoods
A third perspective incorporates flexibility with face-to-face collaboration by suggesting alternatives for both teleworking and the traditional office. As part of the “flexible work model”, it predicts an increased offering of spaces catering to the needs of remote workers. In this view, the workplaces are more spread out around the city, take on new forms and are sometimes incorporated into other types of spaces (Connley et al. 2020; Beekmans et al. 2020). It could mean for example the emergence of more co-working spaces, on-demand spaces and digital work hubs located closer to employees’ homes, whereas companies might close down their main offices or relocate them further from the city center (Beekmans et al. 2020; Boland et al. 2020; Connley et al. 2020; Liu, 2020a; Yu et al. 2019). Local “third places” such as cafés or libraries might also become increasingly popular for work. Having more diverse and local options for places to work at can provide several benefits over working from either home or in traditional, centralized offices.
Firstly, the variety and proximity of workplaces - in addition to the flexible hours - would make it easier for people to adjust work not only into their individual lifestyle but also different working habits and preferences (Beekmans et al. 2020), providing a more human-centered approach to work. Another important advantage is that many of these spaces, especially the ones targeted at co-working, can provide some sort of community that is traditionally missing in teleworking (Liu 2020a). In addition, the services offered by some of these spaces can relieve other challenges experienced by people working from home. When the character of the work is not collaborative, places such as digital work hubs can offer an alternative to home especially for those lacking suitable work settings at home, while saving a potentially long commute to the office.
As Yu and the colleagues (2019) point out in their literature review, studies have shown that shared workspaces promote collaboration not only between coworkers, but also between employees from different companies and sectors who have similar interests, thus advancing knowledge transfer and innovation (e.g. Capdevila 2013; Spinuzzi 2012 and Stumpf 2013 in Yu et al. 2019).
Yu and the colleagues also refer to studies (Ge et al. 2018; Mokhtarian et al. 1992 in Yu et al. 2019) which show that the spread of co-working spaces and local hubs can lead to a reduced need for public transport, less congestion, and thus less pollution and savings in employees’ money and time. Furthermore, fewer people commuting to same parts of the city at the same time makes it easier to keep a safe distance when using public transport (HR-consultant Emily Draycott-Jones quoted in Harper 2020). A wider spread of the virus could also be contained by people staying more in their local area instead of making daily, long commutes around the city. So, despite traditionally connected with high risk for infection, well-designed and optimally located shared workspaces could potentially have the opposite effect. This means that they could benefit employee satisfaction, environment as well as health, and would thus complement well working from home and occasionally going to the office to collaborate with the colleagues.
In addition to all this, the de-centralization of workplaces could have a significant effect on urban development and how the city functions. As a consequence of changes in people’s mobility patterns (Beekmans et al. 2020), it might boost the liveliness of some neighbourhoods and suburbs as more people are staying in these areas during the office hours using the local services, such as restaurants and supermarkets. This could open many opportunities for suburban development and speed up the trend of polycentric cities, in which several vibrant nodes emerge instead of one clear center. On the other hand, this means we might need to find new strategies to maintain the vitality of current city centers.
Time for flexibility, innovation and a human-centered approach
While the future of workplace and work culture remains to be seen, it is likely that digitalization and flexibility in various forms will continue to be major trends. The future work will probably consist of a combination of work from home, the office and various places for remote work. Together with the increased flexibility, the localization of the workplaces could impact several city structures.
In the design of the workplaces, we might see more attention paid to the value of being together in-person. Since people will have more options to choose from, it will be also increasingly important to design workplaces where people feel comfortable, placing the “user” at the core instead of economic efficiency.
Flexibility will be essential not only from the employee’s perspective; the pandemic showcases the importance of being able to adapt to future challenges and changing conditions, be it a shift in the working culture and people’s lifestyle or something more external such as a pandemic or climate change, and this is something all workplaces should take into consideration.
As the pandemic has already pushed companies and organizations to reflect on their practices, it provides a good opportunity to create workplaces that are more human-centered and sustainable by placing more emphasis on employees’ needs and wellbeing and for example supporting locality. Finally, it also offers good incentives to innovate new, creative ways to collaborate, co-create and connect – both with and without the help of digital tools – to keep those values secured regardless of the prevailing conditions.