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Future Office Layout to Support Remote Workers

by Keith Fentress / August 24, 2020

Telework has been on the rise since the beginning of the pandemic. As a result, businesses have had to scramble to implement significant changes that support employees in working effectively from home.

It is my belief that a substantially higher percentage of employees will telework post-pandemic than the percentage who teleworked pre-pandemic. Many organizations have seen that productivity is just as high as - or even higher than - it was when everyone worked in the traditional office.

However, despite the increase in telework, many businesses will need to keep a physical office as a cultural hub and to provide a sense of identity for the organization.

This article discusses how these facilities can best serve the needs of a workforce that will be divided between working at home and in the office.

Home vs. Office

In designing an office that supports remote work, consideration must be given to the work that employees cannot do as effectively from home. Assuming that employees have set up the right workspaces at home that are free from distractions, they should be able to accomplish work that requires focus and concentration in their home office.

So, if focused work can be accomplished at home, what is the best use of the office? In my view, the office should be designed for collaboration and connectivity.

I have managed a company of remote workers for over 30 years. In that time, I have had numerous employees struggle with working from home. Two common themes have repeated over the years.

First, employees on project teams want to collaborate in person to generate new ideas and review lessons learned. Second, employees want more informal connections and social interaction than is offered when working solely at home.

In my experience, connectivity and collaboration are key elements that remote workers need in an office environment. The good news is that an effective workplace can be designed with these considerations in mind.

Connectivity

We are social beings and need to feel connected to other people. Our jobs are typically a significant part of our lives and we appreciate social connections that occur in the workplace. Though the banter and laughter around the office water cooler may not seem productive, it is beneficial in promoting connectivity.

These days, connections at the outmoded water cooler can be safely accommodated by offering informal spaces or lounge areas where employees can sit and talk comfortably while social distancing.

Here are some of the features of effective informal space:

  • Make it comfortable and flexible. Although long comfortable couches are appealing, it is best to offer comfortable individual seats that can be moved to promote social distancing (see image below). This type of seating can also be rearranged into many combinations to accommodate various group sizes. Some chair options have retractable work surfaces that support a laptop or provide a writing surface that can also fold out of sight. Flexible and adaptable space options, as opposed to fixed spaces, are an effective trend in current office design.
  • Create informal spaces in open areas with lots of natural light. If the climate permits, have windows that can open to improve ventilation. Furnish the space with plants to provide a more relaxing environment and cleaner air.
  • If the weather in your area is amenable to outside seating, developing informal areas on rooftops or plazas can promote employee gathering. These spaces can also boost well-being by providing the benefits of working outdoors.
  • Give the office a homey vibe. This design trend started well before the pandemic but will likely continue for many years. As employees become accustomed to working in home offices, a central office can benefit from being designed as a “home away from home.” There is an added benefit to designing an office with touches of home. Employees have been at home for such a long time during the pandemic that having more comfortable home-like features in the office can help reduce stress as they return to work.
Office seating movable

Comfortable, flexible seating with natural light and plants

Collaboration

I was recently listening to the Workplace Innovator podcast (episode 118), and the interviewee said that office space has been designed with 80% of the space allocated to workstations and 20% for collaboration. The speaker predicted that the post-pandemic office will reverse these percentages, with 80% of the space being dedicated to collaboration. This is a profound shift in office layout and one that I support.

Instead of having fixed walled conference rooms scattered throughout an office, the future office design should focus on flexible collaboration spaces.

Here are some collaborative design tips:

  • Place collaboration spaces in open areas that can be rearranged as needed and used for less private meetings.
  • Utilize conference/training rooms that combine modular meeting tables and auditorium-style seats on risers, which offer employees numerous configuration options while maintaining social distancing (see image below).
  • Have a suite of conference rooms with accordion-style walls, which can provide flexibility in changing the size of the rooms. Combined with modular conference tables and chairs, users can create different configurations of spaces to support social distancing, break-out discussions, etc.
Office seating raised 2

Raised bench seating with movable cushions to promote social distancing

Take Full Advantage of the Office

As employees return to the workplace, coming back to an office that is designed to help them safely connect and collaborate will be a boost for morale. People have been disconnected from their coworkers and need to get together to catch up in a human way that cannot be done over Zoom.

As work settles back into a routine, businesses will establish policies on the future of working from home versus coming into the office. My advice is to allow employees to work from home at least half-time so that they can blend home and work life and perform focused work with fewer distractions.

When employees do come into the office, encourage them to take advantage of connectivity and collaboration opportunities. This includes team meetings, brainstorming sessions, and spontaneous encounters. Provide employees with a little down time to connect and strengthen the bonds that bind them together as a company. This is also a great opportunity to socialize and to enjoy being back together in person.

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Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress is the founder and president of Fentress Incorporated. He has an extensive history of consulting to real property organizations. His skills include organizational development, program evaluation, and business process improvement. He enjoys outdoor pursuits like backpacking, canoeing, and snorkeling.