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Rethinking the office and the workday after COVID-19

Why activity-based workspaces, hub-and-spoke offices and flexibility will be key after COVID-19.  

As companies in the U.K. navigate a return to the office amidst COVID-19, some are taking a staggered approach to reoccupancy — and others including global law firm Slater and Gordon are rethinking their workspace needs entirely

These aren’t the first companies to announce such plans, and they certainly won’t be the last. 

Below, we’ll explore the trends reshaping attitudes around the workplace — and what our workdays will look like after COVID-19.

We’ll discuss: 

The changing role of the office after COVID-19

Even before COVID-19, the office was transitioning from the place to work to just one of the many places we choose to work. Technology has enabled work to be done anywhere and everywhere — something COVID-19 fully exposed when many companies were forced to quickly implement remote work policies. 

So, what role will offices need to play as workers return after months of making do without them? 

In a survey of 600+ U.K. office workers and 1,000+ U.S. office workers, more than half of respondents told us they want to return to the office for some or all of the week after COVID-19. 

The central reason? People are finding it harder to meaningfully connect and collaborate with their colleagues. 

In our survey, 90% of U.K. respondents — and 98% of U.S. respondents — say there are aspects to working remotely that are challenging. Not least among them is connecting with colleagues effectively and finding quiet space to work. 

This doesn’t mean most professionals want to go back to the office five days a week after COVID-19. In fact, losing the flexibility to work outside the office is one of the bigger concerns office workers have. 51% of office workers say they want to retain the flexibility to work remotely for at least part of the week after the coronavirus pandemic.  

Hana-private-office-London
A private office in London.

Taken together, these responses paint a picture of what most office workers expect their workdays and time in the office to look like after COVID-19: There will be more flexibility to work remotely, at least part of the week, and more intentional time in the office to fill the gaps remote work leaves. 

For companies and professionals, this signals a significant shift — and raises important questions about what the role of the office will be, and what investments are needed moving forward to facilitate a new way of work. 

However things move forward, the companies that answer these questions will build workplace solutions that best serve the needs of their employees. 

Key Takeaway 

Overwhelmingly, people miss going to the office for random interactions with colleagues, in-person inspiration and informal dialogue. 

While people do want to go back to the office for these perks, they still want flexibility to work remotely. As that truth takes root, companies are making strategic changes to their real estate holdings in order to provide their employees with more flexibility. 

3 ways the office and our workdays will change after COVID-19

At this point, one thing is clear: The role of the office in our work days before COVID-19 will be decidedly different from the role the office plays during our work days after COVID-19. 

For months now, there have been predictions for how the office will change in response to this fact. These predictions have ranged wildly with some anticipating the “death” of the office and others forecasting new workspace layouts that reverse the ongoing trends of densification. 

At Hana, we see three trends that are far more likely to make a permanent mark beyond the current moment — even if they’re less likely to take center stage in headlines. 

Expect to see more activity-based workspaces

Activity-based workspaces, or activity-based working, aren’t new. But they’re poised to take on a new relevance after COVID-19. 

At their simplest, activity-based workspaces treat every part of the office as a potential workspace, assigning different areas to different workday tasks. 

Examples include spaces specifically tailored for collaborative work such as huddle rooms and conference rooms; spaces for individually focused work such as quiet workspaces, private focus rooms and phone rooms; and space for more social work such as cafes and lounges. 

By treating every part of the office as a potential workspace, activity-based working encourages mobility, flexibility and collaboration. They also offer ideal spaces for employees hungry for in-person work after COVID-19 — or a quiet space for heads-down focus.  

Why activity-based workspaces are effective

Office workers are hungry for a change of scenery. In our survey, 42% of respondents in the U.K. tell us that the thing they value more about working in an office since being forced to work from home due to the pandemic is a change of scenery.  

Previous research shows people are more productive when they have access to alternative spaces. Paul Nellist, Managing Director of EMEA at Hana, remarks that activity-based workspaces “improve workplace fulfillment and fuel productivity.” 

Why activity-based workspaces will be in demand after COVID-19

As companies reevaluate their real-estate footprints in the wake of COVID-19, activity-based workspaces will enable more targeted use of physical office space.

This is especially important as companies zero in on why people need to go to the office — specifically, for in-person work, interactions with colleagues and collaboration. 

But in addition to collaboration, workers also need individual focus space and a dedicated place for work.

According to Emma Morley, office designer and founder of London-based trifle* creative, “...if we’ve all got a desk or table at home that we can work on, then when we go into the office it’s about collaboration, socialisation and sharing ideas.”

At Hana, we expect to see high demand for activity-based workspaces such as collaborative spaces, individual workspaces and private offices as people start returning to work. 

The rise of hub-and-spoke offices in commercial real estate

Instead of maintaining a large real estate presence in an expensive urban center like London or Birmingham, some U.S. and U.K. companies are beginning to think about strategically setting up smaller presences in urban “hubs” and suburban “spokes.” 

This model isn’t new in commercial real estate. It’s historically been championed by airports. 

But it is a new development for companies looking to diversify their portfolios, and offer their employees who live outside urban areas greater flexibility to work closer to home. 

Why hub-and-spoke offices are effective

There has been a surge in interest in the hub-and-spoke workplace model in the U.K.. Allowing workers the freedom to work locally has enabled them to save time commuting, which we found to be a top benefit U.K. office workers cite when asked about working remotely. 

Moreover,  a hub-and-spoke model enables businesses to maintain greater agility in their real estate portfolios as they diversify their holdings outside of urban centers.

why-hub-and-spoke-offices

That doesn’t mean that workers don’t want to work in cities — they do. But by offering spoke offices outside urban metros, companies can benefit from access to new talent and provide employees greater flexibility around their commute.

As McKinsey notes, “companies should take a fresh look at how much and where space is required and how it fosters desired outcomes for collaboration, productivity, culture, and the work experience.”

What the benefits of hub-and-spoke offices will be after COVID-19

The hub-and-spoke model gives companies and workers added flexibility in three key ways: 

  1. It cuts down on commuting times. Respondents to our survey, especially those in the suburbs, are overwhelmingly in favor of shorter commutes to and from the office with 60% citing it as a top benefit of remote work.

  2. It alleviates concerns about public transit. In urban centers, public transit is considered a potential weak link when it comes to fighting COVID-19 —  and people are understandably wary of jumping on buses and trains in order to get to the office. Having an office closer to home or more remote-friendly work policies in place helps people avoid public transit.

  3. It helps companies field talent across different geographies. Given that they can draw talent from anywhere, companies that embrace remote work and distributed workforces will have a larger and more diverse talent pool to pull from.

Flexibility and flexible workspaces will help bridge the gap

Flexibility has long been a sought-after workplace perk. But what was once a “nice-to-have” benefit has become table stakes for employees in the pandemic workplace.  

According to our survey, 51% of U.K.-based employees want the flexibility to work from home and the office. 

And there shouldn’t be too much resistance from employers either. Recent research from Cardiff and Southampton universities shows that the majority of people working from home are as productive, if not more, than they are in the office.

the-new-role-of-flexible-workspaces

As companies begin to reevaluate their employees’ wants and needs in the wake of the pandemic, McKinsey says one thing is clear: The companies that “create workspaces specifically designed to support the kinds of interactions that cannot happen remotely” will excel.

Instead of being the only place where work happens, offices will become just one of many options where people can respond to email, jump on calls or fire off messages on Slack. 

Why flexible workspaces are effective

The pandemic has accelerated the work-from-home trend. And while a growing number of workers had the ability to work from home before the pandemic struck, COVID-19 pushed us 10 years into the future. 

While attitudes are certainly changing about flexibility and how the workplace fits into the workday — and we’ve seen that a lot of work can be done remotely without causing dips in productivity — the fact remains that some things cannot be done from a remote location: In-person connections, meetings, organic collaboration or impromptu conversations before or after a meeting. 

These workday interactions continue to be important, and a third of U.K. workers tell us they value the flexibility to have an office for just these types of work.

What the benefit of flexible workspaces will be after COVID-19

People are questioning the role the office should play in their lives now more than ever. Given the flexibility now required, work, in many ways, has become disconnected from the office.

Workers used to juggle how work would fit into their lives. But now, flexibility allows people to better bridge the gap between the two. 

Parents, for example, have had to juggle an inordinate amount during this enormous work-from-home experiment. With built-in flexibility in the workplace, they’ll have to make fewer concessions when planning their workday — instead of cramming things in or rescheduling meetings, they can easily take their kid to the doctor, make them a snack or pick them up from daycare, all without missing a beat.

Key Takeaway 

COVID-19 has changed the way we interact with the office and our workdays in profound ways. As companies begin bringing workers back in, expect to see more activity-based workspaces that encourage flexibility, greater adoption of hub-and-spoke offices and an increased focus on giving employees the flexibility they need to work most effectively.

Take this with you 

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped attitudes about what a normal workday looks like and what the role of the workplace is moving forward. 

By and large, the pandemic has accelerated the evolution to more flexible ways of working. 

After COVID-19, office workers will likely be more intentional about the time they spend in the workplace, leveraging the office for key items they cannot perform remotely. But they still want flexibility above all else. 

The companies that succeed will be the ones that reimagine the workplace and the workday. 

Learn more about the importance people place on meaningful connection at the office in our latest report, COVID-19 is accelerating the demand for flexibility and meaningful connection.

Oct 1 2020

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