The COVID-19 pandemic radically disrupted work environments to the point where the office, as we knew it, may never be the same again.
The daily commute to work could be a thing of the past. So might something as simple as pushing an elevator button at an office building or brushing shoulders with a colleague in the hallway.
“People’s behaviours and fears are not going to go away the day they get a vaccine,” says Meredith Thatcher, co-founder of Agile Work Evolutions, an Ottawa-based startup that helps clients implement more flexible and efficient work environments. “The fear is going to continue for a period of time and behaviours are going to change.”
Companies are using innovation and technology to create office space that focuses on enhanced health and safety and on smart building amenities.
While there are some people who can’t wait to get back to the office, there are others who find the lack of a commute is reducing the stress in their lives and improving their overall health, says Thatcher.
“We are hearing from our clients, very consistently, that a huge number of people want substantially more flexibility in their lives,” she says.
“Employees are saying, ‘This is pretty good. Why do I have to spend an hour in the car to go do four hours of email? Does it really matter where I’m sitting to do that or to write a report?’
“We are not going back to the same offices we left in March,” adds Thatcher. “The environments that we are going back to are more focused on socialization, communication and collaboration and less on individual heads-down work.”
Derrick Hanson is president and co-founder of The Attain Group, an intelligent building consulting and engineering firm that provides connectivity solutions to make office spaces more efficient – and enjoyable – environments.
“The office has to become a destination of choice; people have to want to go there,” says Hanson.
He believes COVID-19 is accelerating the evolution of the office, as seen with the widespread adoption of technologies for video conferencing as well as the move toward a hybrid workplace that involves productive hours both in the office and remotely.
“We just spent the last five to 10 years squishing people into offices as close as we could possibly get them because apparently that was good for collaboration,” says Hanson. “Now, we’re like, ‘I don’t want to go anywhere near that right now. I don’t want to be in an office where I’m two feet from somebody.’”
Yet, the office serves a very important function, says Hanson. “People are social in nature. We need that human contact.
“I may want to have a conversation with you, face-to-face, or collaborate on a project or do some brainstorming. We can do it on Zoom, we can do it on Microsoft Teams or Google Hangouts, but it’s not quite the same.”
The Attain Group helps its clients upgrade their systems to fully integrated tech-enabled and connected networks. Investing in such technology – and differentiating one’s building – is a good way to attract new tenants, Hanson says.
“People want more space, greater freedom, flexibility, mobility, health and safety. To drive that, the building needs to have a system that they can use to connect.”
The touchless office
Office buildings now have COVID-19 signage that reminds visitors about the importance of physical distancing, mask requirements, maximum capacities as well as directional arrows for one-way flow.
Technology has also progressed to the point where employees can complete touchless body temperature checks or breeze through building security just by using a smartphone app. Their smartphones can also help them book a workstation in advance and have it ready for when they arrive – with their preferred air temperature and lighting.
Ceiling-mounted smart sensors can track how many people are in a building or on a particular floor, and can monitor physical distancing. They can also detect whether an area has been cleaned and, if so, how long ago.
Other considerations include touchless designs for bathrooms and improvements to air quality by improving HVAC systems or by making physical changes to manage indoor airflow.
“A lot of these tools that we’re talking about, to make the workplace healthier and safer, actually help us down the road to a more sustainable work environment,” says Thatcher. “It builds resilience for the organization. It doesn’t matter what comes again … hopefully, not another pandemic in my lifetime, but the more companies are better enabled to respond to them, the better everyone will do.”