UMI investigates the future of workplace privacy furniture as we return to the office.
While it is impossible to be certain about what the future holds, the design team at UMI sought to understand the short-term and long-term effects that the pandemic will have on the work environment. By engaging in thoughtful conversations with business owners and employees, it is possible to gain an understanding on how workplace needs may shift. By applying our findings, we as a society can collectively design for better, more resilient workplaces.
The Era of Remote Work
Remote work has lasted longer than most of us intended, and it is likely that companies will continue to allow their employees work from home through 2021. During the time at home, even though coworkers are away from one another, there is a stronger connection between employees. There is a deeper understanding that in order for businesses to remain successful, all employees must feel supported while working from home. As we transition back into the office, this need for human connection will not go away, instead it will be intensified and will largely factor into workplace design in a number of ways.
First, virtual conferencing and the use of conference tools between coworkers and clients will continue. This offers an opportunity for technology to have an even greater impact on company activities and initiatives. To name a few, businesses have been welcoming the use of digital whiteboards, video brainstorms, virtual trips, educational seminars, webinars, and even online happy hours to bring employees together. Rather than looking at a small screen of participants, technology provides a video conference experience where you feel as if you were next to the person you are speaking to. Certain studies have even shown that introverts feel more inclined to speak out in a virtual chat or meeting as opposed to what their comfort level would be in-person in a physical conference room. These types of virtual explorations further reflect the idea that people are longing to collaborate and be together again. While virtual reality can’t fully replace human interactions, it can help to make people feel more connected in the meantime.
Additionally, people will continue to structure their days differently around personal tasks like walking a dog or helping a child with school. Prior to the remote work shift, these tasks were done before or after work and did not need to be factored into the work day. Now that work and home have blended together, people have discovered a routine that works for them and their personal needs. This is unlikely to disappear and employers will need to continue to be flexible with people’s work-life balance. Given that work and life are continuing to occur in the same place, employees are more aware of this balance and will continue to strive for a well-rounded life.
Transitioning Back to the Office
The companies that are reopening their doors to employees are doing so with lower occupancy and on a part-time basis. While there is an understanding that this is how we need to utilize the office for the time being, this will shift into long term office policies. This in between stage of remote work and working in the office will present some new opportunities for workplace design and culture. Employees should be encouraged to foster strong connections with one another so that they feel connected and supported regardless of where they are working, be it at home or in the office.
Remaining connected requires most people to communicate over video calls. As many people have experienced, standard conference rooms in offices were not conducive to video conferencing. Now, we can ensure our offices are more equipped to better support video conferencing and virtual gatherings for one-on-one meetings or small group brainstorms. As a result, we’ll likely see an increase in touchdown spaces for employees looking to complete focused work, have private conversations, escape for a moment as they re-adjust back to office life, or maybe even just need some time away from their desks. With the addition of privacy furniture, more of these touchdown areas can be available to support the needs of today’s workers without having to expand real estate or build new conference rooms.
Spatial allocations will also be altered to meet new safety guidelines. Privacy furniture, such as pods, can be helpful in the mid-term by making employees feel safe to return to the office – for employees who might not have access to a private office (and would like the comfort of closing a door to work) a pod can provide users with a flexible solution that supports their need for comfort. Just as it pertains to any piece of property, with proper cleaning and maintenance, a pod can be used safely by a variety of people throughout one day and used by different people each day. For teams who want to meet in-person, a larger pod that can fit four to six people can provide a separate and quiet space to focus on work together.
The Future of the Office
As people have grown accustomed to working remotely, companies will need to adopt a flexible work from home policy, but this will not eliminate the physical office space. This is because humans will always have the need to connect in person and will want the community aspect of working with their peers – it’s in our nature. By setting up an office with the proper safety protocols and creating a welcoming environment, the office can once again be a place where people go to work safely. For this to happen, workstations must remain agile and accommodating to employees who wish to split their time in the office at home. This will become a necessary employee benefit.
To accommodate the changing flow of employees, floor plans will also need to look different and must be agile enough to change with employee’s needs. Privacy furniture can support this flexibility by offering temporary desks for employees who are part time in the office as well as provide smaller conference rooms for people who need to have a one-on-one virtual meeting with a co-worker who is working remotely. While pods will not replace personal offices or conference rooms, they can offer companies solutions that will give the same sense of security and privacy to their employees.
Happiness and Wellbeing
This pandemic has also served as a catalyst for the wellness revolution. In order for the office to remain successful in the future, it should serve as a peaceful escape from the outside world. This involves creating a welcoming and calm environment for employees. By bringing the comforts of home into the office, like soft seating options and offering multiple locations to do work, the office can become a space employee choose to escape to.
Acoustic privacy furniture not only provide quiet spaces that give users an escape from the inevitable distractions of the office, but they also promote productivity and focus as the walls block any noises from traveling outside or inside. As such, pods have always helped improve employee happiness and wellbeing by reducing the stresses of the office environment – this was true pre-COVID and it will continue to be part of society following the pandemic just as well.
While no one individual or organization can be absolutely certain about what is to come, we as a community can continue to research, innovate and educate to design healthy and productive working environments of the future. With a deeper understanding of technology, employee satisfaction, and privacy furniture, we can continue to have conversations to ensure employees feel safe and comfortable when they choose to return to the office. As we learn more about the future implications of the pandemic, we all must continue to be agile and keep open conversations as we learn from each other.