Article: How the physical office can meet remote workers' needs: Unispace's Nathan Sri

Life @ Work

How the physical office can meet remote workers' needs: Unispace's Nathan Sri

The workplace of the future must cater to two different types of needs—the 'Residential' and the 'Transient'—and must be designed to elevate experience-based working, says Nathan Sri, Principal, Strategy, at Unispace.
How the physical office can meet remote workers' needs: Unispace's Nathan Sri

Six months into "the world's biggest work-from-home experiment", and with economies gradually but slowly opening up, companies are still in the process of reconciling the new reality of work with the traditional role of the office. How are office workspaces evolving to match the needs of a workforce that doesn't actually need them any more? People Matters asked Nathan Sri, Principal, Strategy, Unispace, for his thoughts on the matter; here's what he shared.

With remote work now a proven concept, what role do you see the physical office playing for those jobs that don't need people to be physically present?

To date, remote working has become a viable practice for most businesses in the new normal, as it has revealed new realities of productivity and efficiency. However, according to a Global Remote Working Survey we conducted over March and April this year, 63% of respondents considered the top internal-facing challenge of remote working to be socializing and creating meaningful connections—and 55% of respondents said that the top client-facing challenge was the decrease in presence and connection.

Indeed, while remote working has proven successful in the accomplishment of individual tasks and focus-based work, it has proven counterproductive in other aspects.

The physical workplace still offers employees a range of emotional, psychological and professional benefits, and presents a platform to establish crucial organizational pillars such as tightly woven teams and a strong corporate culture.

The need for these pillars have especially been exacerbated by the pandemic, as widespread lockdowns have imposed long periods without social interaction for individuals everywhere.

Furthermore, our client engagements are evidencing two distinct segments of workplace needs. Our WorkReady survey finds that about 20% of staff are working from home disadvantaged—that is, they do not have the capacity or resources to work from home efficiently. Approximately 25% of staff also do not feel like their job is suited to working from home on a regular basis. As such, the future of the workplace will still need to cater for those individuals who will be in the office as their predominant workplace location. These ‘Residents’ will demand a different set of workplace needs to the ‘Transient’ population who are able to take advantage of the new-found freedom to work from anywhere.

What kind of workplace facilities or amenities might be most effective in catering to these different needs, going forward?

As employees’ time will remain divided between home and the workplace in the new normal, businesses need to ensure that workplace facilities and amenities are able to fulfill a range of new requirements.

Firstly, businesses need to ensure that pre-existing divisions between in-office and remote working are abolished, so that employees can collaborate without having to physically occupy the same space together. Upgrades to technology can facilitate this—for example, organization-wide video conferencing tools, idea generation platforms and cloud storage empower workers to interact flexibly and effectively.

Next, businesses should consider pivoting in-office spaces to meet shifting employee needs in a post-COVID-19 world. With the understanding that the workplace will increasingly be geared towards interaction and collaboration, certain facilities can be installed in the office, to enable small groups of workers to gather and brainstorm, such as private meeting rooms, lounge areas and thinking hubs. Naturally, these changes will not be implemented immediately as safe distancing is still of paramount importance.

Businesses should also consider the long-term implications of the pandemic as they go about bringing changes to the workplace. They need to factor in future workplace ergonomics, such as incorporating physiological elements that enable employees to safely spend time in the office. For example, the importance of clean air within office spaces has markedly increased, motivated by the possibility of COVID-19 being an airborne disease.

Contactless design is increasingly used in workplaces as a defense against viral spread: where do you see that trend going?

At the workplace, contactless design can take various forms—for example, entry doors and access points throughout the office can be automated to reduce the amount of physical contact, and occupancy sensors can be installed to keep a close watch on occupant capacity levels in certain spaces. Where fully-contactless design cannot be implemented immediately, adjustments to existing equipment can be made, such as focusing on usage via the elbow or forearm to minimize touch. Alternatively, these equipment can also be replaced with self-cleaning machinery that can install fresh sleeves after each use, or have high-touch surfaces coated with disinfecting agents to maintain high levels of cleanliness.

However, while contactless design has offered a level of deterrence against the spread of the virus, businesses should continue taking other precautionary measures, such as ensuring large-scale gatherings are avoided as much as possible. They must also remain agile and adaptable, so as to address any and all evolving needs quickly and effectively.

People are demanding greater and more genuine flexibility in how they do their work today. What are some ways for workplaces to provide that flexibility even for the jobs that require physical presence?

The needs of employees in an organization can vary quite widely from one person to another, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only emphasized this further. 45% of our survey respondents found that they were more productive working from home, while 36% cited the complete opposite. This suggests that an optimal balance has yet to be found, and that businesses need to do more to equip each employee with the right resources to enhance well-being and productivity.

For example, in adapting to current realities, a large proportion of employees have embraced working from home, and desire to continue doing so for at least part of the working week even after the pandemic has stabilized As a result, employers should look at evolving the office into a place for “experience-based working”, rather than for doing individual focused work—which can be accomplished at home.

Experience-based working involves curating spaces, and allowing individuals to be present at the office for specific reasons or experiences. For example, for matters involving problem-solving, they may head to the libraries or use side-by-side tables; for innovation, they can access huddle spaces and maker labs; and for community, they may convene at cafe spaces or brand zones.

Ultimately, experience-based working ensures that individuals are there to make something happen, rather than be there for the sake of presenteeism.

What are some ways businesses can adapt the workplace for experience-based working?

Our Global Remote Working Survey found that 68% of respondents believe employees are likely to work from home two to three days a week, and that organizations will be sending staff back to the workplace in waves rather than all at once. Businesses might consider arrangements that expedite hybrid working, allowing employees to more efficiently split their time between home and work. For example, we developed a Propeller workplace model that places less emphasis on the individual desk and creating focus space, as these areas of work can be accomplished by individuals at home. As a result, this will mitigate issues around reorganizing desks in the short term, and enable employees to return to the office for its best benefits.

We see three areas in which businesses can create value where remote working cannot. The first area, problem solving, empowers employees and partners to work together to create something more meaningful and innovative than what they could have achieved alone. The second area, innovation, fosters the exchange of bold ideas and concepts that drive transformation, by encouraging diversity and imagination. The third area, community building, demonstrates a commitment to mentorship and camaraderie, with a collective sense that like-minded people are there to do great things together.

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Topics: Life @ Work, Employee Engagement

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