Forbes - Leadership

The New Office: Safer, Or Just Different?

Plenty has been said about the future of the office space of late. The consensus is that it’s never going to be the same again, but what it looks like is another story. Some are insisting the open plan is over and we’ll return to walls and box-like offices. Others are curtailing any plans to bring people back to the office at all, relying instead on technology and the new culture of digital collaboration. There’s a cut-our-losses aspect to this, since the cost of commercial office space that’s woefully underutilized can hurt.

But we know no one size fits all: for some industries, remote is impossible altogether. For others, remote is better. For others still, they’re going hybrid, and looking forward to the challenge of ensuring everyone is literally on the same page no matter their location. The pandemic certainly isn’t the version of Working 4.0 we were all anticipating, perhaps — unless our office is filled with epidemiologists. But for anyone whose passion is the intersection of growth, people and technology, there’s a lot to look forward to.

What I’m seeing is that the challenges we were tackling before the pandemic are still there — and the shape of offices to come has to meet those as well as the new challenges of safety and well-being. Here’s what that includes:

Inclusive Design 

Inclusive (or universal design) is not new, but as we bring back our workforces this is a clear opportunity to do more of it. Adjust the physical space to increase inclusiveness, including accessibility and ADA compliance. There are plenty of guidelines on this, but here are just some brief examples: lever handles instead of knobs, flat panel or sensor light switches, wider hallways and turning space, a choice of lighting — since those with ADHD, for instance, may be triggered by harsh lights.

Minimize potential hazards, maximize ways to convey information, and provide multi-sensory alarms. Replace stairs with ramps. Take inventory of those obstacles that went unnoticed: for some, the plant by the doorway may be treacherous, the copier through a narrow doorway may be impossible to access, and the sun blazing in from the window may blind the computer screen. You may also have employees suffering from long-term Covid with a whole range of new challenges that need accommodation — so make it safe for them to come forward with their needs.


Designate restrooms to reflect current gender identities. Provide diaper stations for those bringing in infants and playrooms for socially distanced day care options. In an organization that allows for flexible and blended working situations, that may be a practical way to get everyone into the same space for a short period of time. The Brookings Institute found that 1 in 4 of women who became unemployed during the pandemic cited lack of childcare as the reason — twice the rate among men. Give them ways to balance responsibilities so that they can.

Open Plan 2.0

The zeal for creating open plan offices has been met with some serious questions about social distancing and worker safety. In a recent report by the National Institutes for Health, the authors pointed out that open plan office space rose in popularity after the 2008 recession — it saved on operational costs by reducing the footprint and the cost of space. Open spaces were seen as a better way to promote interaction and communication, helping bring new hires into the culture sooner and enabling easier collaboration and visibility. Open spaces also made work seem less like work, at least on a superficial level — and behind the foosball and cappuccino bar façade was the hope that people would be so comfortable, they would want to keep working. And as sometimes happens with Silicon Valley’s splashy tech firms, the most staid corporate office in middle American was suddenly knocking down walls and painting murals.

But the original open plan concept also had some flaws, including an inescapable bro culture that sometimes led to toxic behaviors and marginalizing those who didn’t conform. They could be noisy, distracting, and intimidating. Lack of privacy, it turns out, isn’t conducive to productivity. We need time, space and quiet to focus.

Which leads me back to Silicon Valley. Not that we can all follow Google’s lead, but the company’s own approaches to current safety issues are a good indication of what may come next — and worth emulating. The company is redesigning 10% of all of its global workspaces with inflatable balloon walls that can divide a space on demand, and configurable workplaces that adjust to each user with a hand scan (including bringing up family photos). Other new improvements on the open plan include plexiglass dividers, increased distances between desks, redesigning ventilation networks to improve airflow, and adjustable work zones. Rather than close everyone up again, privacy comes from intentional arrangements and flexible dividers, promoting more distance and better air circulation.

Hot Desks

As we start changing the way we do offices, it’s having inevitable impacts on the work culture. HSBC’s radical cutback of its office space spend took the C-Suite out of the C-Suite: the bank transformed its tony 42nd floor executive quarters in London into meeting and collaborative space, and is sending execs downstairs to hot desk it with everyone else. That includes the CEO, Noel Quinn, a great example of a leader walking the walk. What will it be like to be sharing a desk with the CEO? It may just become part of the bank’s new normal come-and-go hybrid work culture.

Hot desks are part innovation, part pragmatism with a future-of-work spin. Coupled with a shift to remote and blended working is the fact that many organizations have had to shrink their workforces, HSBC included. Instead of open plan offices with designated workspaces, why not just have swappable desks, a kind of plug-and-play approach to being at the office? From a management perspective, hot desking may lead to some questions: it may be tempting (and practical) to try getting a team together if they happen to be in the office all at the same time — but what happens if one or two people aren’t in that day? How will being in the office have an impact on expected workflows? Will managers wish they could simply talk to their team members when they see them, instead of going through the machinations of remote communication? And what happens if an employee scheduled for a few-hour stint would rather not leave, though their desk is slated to be used by someone else?

Time will tell. Every shift in the workspace is going to have to be accompanied by very intentional people management strategies to ensure it’s not just another trend and it actually improves engagement, performance, interaction, and well-being. Employees have been through enough. It may seem like a great idea to create semicircular conference stations where the screens are so large you have to look at your coworker on the zoom call, another new idea from Google. It’s certainly safer to not have everyone clustered around a conference table. But there’s a bottom line here we may be missing: no design features are going to truly ensure that our employees are safe. That takes a lot more than changing the air ducts.

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