Workplace rooftop with people eating
Canva office rooftop. Image: Canva

Designers and developers are excited by talk of economics, health, safety, and even fun in ways to entice workers out of their homes and back into the big, wide world of offices.

On the demand side though, it looks like no-one much is pining for the return of office politics.

The Fifth Estate will hold a symposium on 25 May in Sydney and online called Back to My Happy Healthy Workplace on what the return to work can and should mean. Details coming soon.

Instead, they will be enticed by “social connection, chance encounters and team collaboration”, according to assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Bond Business School, Dr Libby Sander.

And this within “a hybrid model of working from home as well as in the office.”

The breakdown of who will work where is a media obsession as we transition and adapt I a Covid affected world because, frankly, no one knows which way the great workplace return will swing.

Sander hedges her bets. “The physical workspace acts as a cognitive scaffold conveying important messages about culture and relational belonging. We are social beings … the relational connection in the office for cohesion (and) idea sharing … is still very important.”

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What has come as a surprise is “that we don’t need to do this every day. People are actually effective and like working from home at least part of the time” (helped by copious video conferencing and Zoom meetings).

Partner at Gray Puksand, Donna Wheatley, is a workplace specialist. She reflects on how potentially contesting workplace drivers can be accommodated.

“Over 90 per cent of office workers want to work at least one day a week from home. Undertaking individual work at home complements the interaction of the office. … High value work (involving) knowledge sharing is best accomplished where people gather, namely, offices. So, I see a permanent shift to some working from home for many organisations, but the main location of work will remain the office.”

Architect James Calder is accustomed to designing and structuring offices for workplace flexibility. He is global director at ERA-Co, a consultancy that, according to its website  “applies evidence-based thinking to create transformative places”.

His first workstyle changing, activity-based project in Australia was in 2001. “It’s been painfully slow,” he says, “though with COVID we have accelerated five or 10 years into the future.”

Currently working on an “increasingly complex” new children’s hospital in Adelaide, he believes nothing can beat being able to go to “work every day with a project team digitally mixing all the various components for the people you need to brief and then having the meetings.

I don’t know if we are even wired to do that sort of project remotely. In theory it is possible but it is quite awkward explaining things. A lot of the conversations in a formal meeting are side conversations.

Clued-in practices have not ignored social, cultural, psychological factors and “intangible factors to inspire confidence (such as) regular communication and transparency with the staff and updates as necessary based on new/revised government restrictions,” says Bianca Hung, director and interior design director at Hayball. (For example, at the end of March the Victorian Government lifted the regulation that required employers to let employees work remotely during the pandemic.)

Not only to attract (and retain) staff, but Hung also suggests a shift away from “a presenteeism culture to more of a focus on outcomes achieved …tangible factors” underpin efforts and plans to enhance safety, security, wellbeing and “to improve productivity”.

The commute in and out of CBD offices incontrovertibly is a disincentive. According to real estate service company, JLL’s recent survey of over 3000 remote workers, 64 per cent of Australian professionals said the removal of the daily commute has been the most enjoyable part of the transition.      

Once in the office building, companies can make it easier      and contactless, to find a desk and a locker. COVID-safe work plans such as Hayball’s cover distancing, masks, sanitisation, personal and surfaces, and way-finding. The firm has also revised its Flex Work Protocols, with communication, keeping connected and mixing video and face-to-face meetings prioritised.

Gray Puksand’s interior teams are “investigating the ability of the materials we select to viral resistant surfaces, integrate sanitary stations into welcome zones and anchor points, and touchless doors … can be technology enabled and integrated into the smart office,” Wheatley says. 

They have developed new office worker profiles, “the minimalist prepper, occupying any and all settings and the comfort seeker, requiring more of a home base, some storage and privacy”. One likely result is less enclosed meeting rooms and more semi-private individual space for the level of concentrated work that remote working can provide, she says.

There may well be a biophilia push, from roof gardens to plants, inside and out. Calder remembers the City of Melbourne’s sustainability-praised Council House 2 (CH2) in 2006. Complaints about its cost had interesting twists. The gardener was not happy. “’It’s a complete disaster. The plants are thriving but my job was to replace them [when they died].’ … Yet, we are still creating buildings where plants die.”

Ideas abound. Openable windows and a greater awareness of acoustics as teams interact more than ever. “I did feel more self-aware about speaking on the phone in the office,” Wheatley says.

This was after the higher degree of privacy at home, but she expects we will get used to sharing office space again.

Calder, meanwhile, foresees a “reinvention” of how space is used, booked and managed. “It will be more like a hired hotel than an exercise in facility management.”

Coworking spaces have adopted this level of service and their approach to work has flowed into traditional offices.

JLL’s director, workplace strategy, Sonya Alexander noticed that despite early scepticism about co-working in the post-pandemic market due to space sharing and tight densities, “we are seeing the opposite trend. With much business uncertainty around future growth and occupiers taking up work from home initiatives, co-working contracts are very attractive in the short-term or (for even) longer.”

Alexander foresees “building hybrid teams, using community building spaces to come together in groups, strategically located to take advantage of various demographics, and using flexibility as currency to attract the future talent.… The city hubs such as the Sydney and Melbourne CBD, will continue to attract prestigious and external market focused occupiers, supporting employees through membership based coworking hubs or previously non-office environments now repurposed to offer social-capital building ‘touch-down space’ closer to home.”

Calder suggests precincts may well emerge with industry groups, especially where employees are young, clustered into one space because “they like being around each other. They have a different mindset. Their values are different from the corporate hierarchy. They don’t want a glass box.”

Other options Calder considers for flexible workspace include within shopping centres and space above carparks. Chris Alcock, Principal – Consulting, Six ideas by Dexus, says “Empowerment, flexibility and work life balance are what people want, and organisations are really stepping up to that.”

The choice is all about “operationalising belonging”, Calder says. This is led by what is seen as “a radical thought for people; to think that the quality of space for the human form might have been an important thing in building”.

Long live people power.

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  1. All good – but very anthropocentric.
    Substitute dogs for native wildlife and furniture for flora – extinction means every office must be an insect haven – or humans will not survive.
    Why? “It turns out too that even quite a few ecologists seem to lack an appreciation of the sheer magnitude of damage we’ve done to the planet….[The] loss of biodiversity.. over the course of our species’ time on Earth is staggering.” CJBradshaw