Think back to March, when the threat of the novel coronavirus sent America's white-collar workers home to work. It felt temporary. Not like a snow day, exactly, but something like a short-term workaround. Soon we'd be back on buses and trains heading downtown or to suburban office parks. But 4 in 10 workers are still doing their jobs away from the office, according to the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, prompting businesses and employees to rethink the way we work. Paula Storsteen, an interior designer and workplace strategist at the Minneapolis-based architecture firm HGA, says the work-from-home experiment has focused attention on what people appreciate about this option, what they miss about the office and the importance of social connectivity to both.
Q: What's your vision for the workplace in 2021?
A: Work-from-home will continue, though it will be just one piece of what our new work life will be. People want authorship. We want to look at our day, our week, and figure out where and when we do our best work. We're still social beings and crave interaction. There's still going to be a need for coming into the office and collaborating and teaming and brainstorming. We'll go into this hybrid model where part of the week will be in the office and part will be at home when we need to focus.
Q: How are businesses thinking about this hybrid model?
A: The pandemic has made many people realize they can be very productive at home. They can focus, they can get a lot of heads-down work done. That's pushed a lot of companies to accept remote work much faster than they would have under normal conditions. Now they're thinking about how they can create the "why" for coming back to an office. What's the draw? The draw is fellowship. We like connections with our teams and co-workers, and want to have the face-to-face collaborations we've been missing. Rather than creating the ideal workplace office or cubicle to spend focused time, companies are offering meaningful collaborative spaces because that's what's going to bring employees back.
Q: So will this spell the end of the office cube?
A: I don't think it'll be the end of the cube. But your dedicated work space might be your home office. When you're in the office, you're in collaborative settings or you might have space where you can touch down between meetings to do a little work, but it may not be your focused work space. We'll also see more enclosed, individual spaces for work or video discussions with colleagues who aren't in the physical office.
Q: How else might the physical office space be different?
A: We're seeing this new hybrid model buzzing with activity, ideas and variety. We'll see meeting spaces evolve, with furniture and technology that allows spaces to flex for different levels of physical distancing and a number of purposes. Office aesthetics may continue to become "softer," or more residential and customizable. Workers will want to infuse the qualities of home, such as plants, pets — and their sourdough starters! — into the office.
Q: How important will technology be in this new scenario?
A: Technology will be essential to maintain an equitable culture if you've got this blended workforce with half at home, half in the office. Every meeting will need a virtual component to make sure all can attend, whether they're in-person or at home. It's going to result in having different policies and procedures for what's normal meeting behavior.
Q: What have workers been missing at the office that they're getting at home?
A: We've seen this blending of work and home create a new level of empathy for our colleagues as whole beings. You're getting to know your co-workers better because you see what's going on in their lives. Companies are becoming more aware of the challenges of being a parent. We are appreciating the quality of our breaks and restorative time at home. At home, we have the flexibility to take a break to walk the dog, exercise or spend time with family. People want to be trusted and given the autonomy to know where they can do their best work.
Q: How can companies try to incorporate some of these benefits into the office setting?
A: Each company has a unique culture and will need to look at what is the right mix for their employees. Be curious and listen. Discuss what is working, what isn't. This will give a deep understanding of what is important to employees: what they missed, what helped them to thrive in these past months. The next steps will require procedures, technologies and physical spaces to come together. Physical space can support and enhance new ways of working successfully for teams and the organization as a whole.
Q: Sounds like flexibility is going to be key as companies move forward.
A: Our research at HGA found that people appreciate the flexibility of their home environment. Organizations that return most of their workforce to the office on a daily basis will want to think about how they can infuse that flexibility into their culture. We need to remember that, for some, the office is where they are happiest and most productive — and perhaps even safer — than when working at home.