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A post-pandemic paradigm shift is coming to the workplace

Workplace design is of continuous interest to members of the AEC (Architecture, Engineering, Construction) community. The workplace is a linkage of technology, community and people’s livelihood. Office environment designs have been experiencing a paradigm shift away from closed individual private offices and cubicles into an open and social environment. Office spaces designed to encourage increased collaborative and creative work have become woven into all workplaces, extending far beyond technology and startup companies. 

This current pandemic has thrust workplace design into its next paradigm shift. Humans are social beings and want to escape the past confinement of lockdowns. Some people will desire to go to the office to connect with other people, but still want to feel safe and healthy. The ability to go to a workplace that is flexible and understanding of each person’s unique needs and levels of comfort will be essential to employee well-being. Achieving this flexibility and sensitivity may mean redesigning an office to have each employee physical distancing while working, or it may result in people continuing to work from home. The employee’s wellness will be the top priority in any case.

Architects and designers are being called upon to help resolve the inherent conflicts in workplace design beyond this pandemic. The AEC industry is realizing that the community health enigma may be one of the greatest challenges in the commercial sector of their practice. 

There are existing requirements for our built environments to reflect the same health standards people have come to expect from their peers. For example, LEED became common design as best practices and now WELL design will also be part of best practices. Wellness aspects must be implemented throughout all buildings by management because it promotes a healthy environment for occupants and the surrounding community.

Cleanable spaces will also be top of mind and there will be a rise in the use of antimicrobial surfaces in workplace design. However, this does not mean all offices will become full of surfaces made out of naturally antimicrobial metals. Woods and natural stones have been shown to aid in antimicrobial growth. 

The conventional wisdom prior to the pandemic was that offices were critical to productivity, culture, and winning the competition for talent. Companies competed intensely for prime office space in major urban centers around the world, and many concentrated on solutions that were seen to promote collaboration. Densification, open-office designs, hoteling, and co-working were the drivers.

Estimates from McKinsey & Company suggest that in early April of 2020, 62% of employed Americans worked at home during the crisis, compared with about 25% a couple of years ago. Many people have been surprised by how quickly and effectively technologies for videoconferencing and other forms of digital collaboration were adopted during the pandemic. The results, surprising to many, have been better than imagined for numerous companies.

McKinsey & Company research also indicated that 80% of people surveyed reported that they enjoy working from home. Forty-one percent say that they are more productive than they were before and 28% that they are as productive. 

The eliminations of long commutes and travel were major reasons why employees found more productive ways to spend that time, enjoy greater flexibility in achieving work/life balance and deciding that they prefer to work from home rather than the office. Another benefit envisioned is that many organizations think they can access new sources of talent with fewer locational constraints, adopt innovative processes to boost productivity, create an even stronger culture, and significantly reduce real-estate costs.

Workplaces and work need to be and currently are being reimagined. Here are a couple examples of how the transformation is occurring by discovering and developing:

New ways to perform work. Organizations adapted to continue collaborating and ensuring that the most important processes could be carried on remotely during the pandemic. Reimagining and reconstructing processes and practices has served as a foundation of an improved operating model that leverages the best of in-person and remote work.

New methods and techniques to retain and recruit talent. Competition for talent has been fierce for the past few years. Simultaneously, some groups of talent have increasingly resisted relocating to their employers’ geographic locations. Employers are finding that employees can work totally remote; in a hybrid system of remote and on site; or on site.  The redefining and constructing how employees will work brings a strategic advantage that does not rely on relocation. 

Redesigning the physical workplace.  Technology will drive the design of the future office and play a central role in enabling employees to return to office buildings and to work safely before a vaccine becomes widely available. Examples of this will include when and how employees enter the workplace and their workspace, the intervals of office cleaning, whether ventilation and air quality are sufficient and how employees will be physical distancing while working. 

The AEC community has an integral role to play in the future workplace environment. A strategically well-planned return to offices of the future presents an amazing opportunity to reinvent the role the office plays, as well as create a better experience for talent, improvement of collaboration and productivity, and cost reduction. Transformational thinking, anticipatory organization leadership and a commitment to capitalize on the next paradigm shift in the workplace environment will create the next great companies.

Technology is playing and will continue to play a very strategic and significant role in the future workplace environments and I want to leave you with this thought from Michael Dell, founder, Chairman & CEO of Dell Technologies.

“Technology now allows people to connect anytime, anywhere, to anyone in the world, from almost any device. This is dramatically changing the way people work, facilitating 24/7 collaboration with colleagues who are dispersed across time zones, countries and continents.”

Glenn Ebersole is a professional engineer and is the Executive Director, Strategic Business Development/Marketing for RCS Construction in Collegeville. He can be reached at gebersole@rcsconstruction.neor 610-415-1130.

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