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Covid-19 has changed the way the world works. With working from home (WFH) becoming the norm, the future of the physical dimension of work is getting serious attention.

Most people aren’t happy travelling to work. Commuting has always had its share of tensions. So, are physical offices required at all? The dominant thinking is that a majority of the white-collar workforce now prefer WFH. Depending on the nature of their business, some companies can contemplate the extreme option of not having offices at all now.

The savings that would accrue from breaking tradition could be huge. These could be used to beef up homes to make WFH more amenable, and for automation, tools and Wi-Fi. Or for financial support to enable staff to create a new work room. And when such a company needs a large hall or a conference facility, it could rent it — in the process, contributing to reviving the fortunes of the shared workspace, hotel industry.

Hospitality groups like Accor, Marriott International and InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) in Singapore are gearing up for such a post-pandemic world. They are reconfiguring their properties to provide permanent virtual studios, on-site production crew, and state-of-the art facilities such as LED walls, teleprompters and digital broadcast cameras where companies combine in-person attendance with digital platforms to connect employees across locations.

We will see more hybrid workspaces. Some companies have retained their headquarters and done away with other offices. Others are disaggregating and having more smaller offices closer to employee homes. Flexible work plans with different teams attending office on specific days are in play too, so that the office footprint is neither excessive nor frugal.

Herman Miller is building an entirely new furniture collection. OE1. This enables employees to move workstations easily to shape their workplace for solo or group activity, without the need for tedious approvals, promoting the concept of dynamic layouts.

Another idea that will gather traction will be reconfigurable offices. If people are indeed attending office for a specific purpose on a particular day, it would be fair to assume that they would pre-book online. The office can then be customised for the next day without too much effort and without using heavy equipment. The office of the future will not just be smart and flexible, but personalised.

Covid-Cured Cubicles

While implementing a hybrid plan, though, there are Covid concerns. Using public transport tops the list. But workspace-related fears are also many — crowded elevators, encountering unvaccinated people, contact while entering the premises, sharing work desks, touching common items, adequate sanitisation of meeting rooms and common spaces, and social distancing figure prominently. Buildings and companies, on the other hand, worry about diluting physical security. Making this contactless is a priority.

The quality of air in workplaces is also a concern. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has pointed out that long-term exposure to air pollution could have contributed to Covid fatalities. There is also the need for acoustic curtains to curb in-office noise pollution.

While company campuses are always going to be different from offices in their aura, expanse and spread, they have been torchbearers regarding the thinking around productive workspaces. These include shopping malls, pubs, restaurants, cafés, retail outlets, gyms, etc. This points to one more compelling reason why our mundane white-collar workspaces need to be more exciting.

With WFH now being more commonplace than working from office (WFO), a contemporary way to redefine this equation could be to make the workplace more like home. So, are we going to fashion our workspaces to accommodate the need for varied environments? Can we align our workspaces more with nature? Are we going to democratise our offices and obliterate all traces of hierarchy?

Is our workspace going to evolve into an island of calm, more amenable to coping with high pressure? Are developments in augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) going to further reduce the need to attend office? More irreverently, can our ‘digital twin’ represent us at office while we are at home?

A recent global survey by professional services firm Aon covering 3 million employees in 248 firms confirms that work flexibility is here to stay, except for jobs not suited at all for remote working.

has drawn up a risk assessment model, Intelligent Urban Exchange (IUX), which considers place of residence, region risk and Covid vaccination status to make return to office safe. Their blueprint envisages 25% of their employees spending 25% of their time at offices, and sees their WFH plan enhancing talent fungibility.

WFA: Work From Anywhere

Governments are not generally known to be fast adopters of digital transformation. But the pandemic is forcing conversations about teleworking to trim costs relating with their office footprint, reducing carbon emissions and enhancing resiliency. Saving taxpayers’ money and onboarding better talent make the case more compelling.

It’s time to pivot from looking at offices as a space and productivity thing, to making them safe zones that truly reflect the nature of business and the culture of the organisation. Technology advancements will increasingly allow effective working from just about anywhere. So, coming to office can’t be routine any more. Looking ahead, if we need our people at office, we’ll have to strive to make employee experience great each time, better than the splendid isolation of home.

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