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‘Breathing new life into the old office’ is a piece written for Building Magazine by our CEO/Founder Earle Arney, exploring the future of the office post-COVID. He argues that although the minor adaptations made to most workplaces during the pandemic were necessary and immediate, we must look past this short-term ‘sneeze-guard’ philosophy and instead to the bigger picture of how we can rethink the fundamental purpose of the office to remain relevant post-Covid-19, in a time where we can work anywhere.

A longer version of the piece is below or can be read in Building here

Breathing new life into the 'old' office, by Earle Arney, CEO and Founder

If you are like me, you will be reaching saturation point about the future of - or more often the death - of the office. This is because much of the discussion on how we can safely re-inhabit our offices has been driven by a “sneeze-guard” design philosophy - but this is short-term thinking that misses the bigger picture.

For one, buildings have a life-span that will well and truly out-live our current focus on social distancing, and the corporate downsizing and reduced occupancy densification accelerated by the pandemic. What we really must appreciate is that the purpose of the office will fundamentally change – and for good reason.

Ideas on the future office have often crystallised around remedial make-good strategies to ready the workplace for a return to post-covid “normality”. These include the now familiar band-aid measures including 2m offices, complete with coloured carpet to enforce boundaries, directional arrows mandating pedestrian flows, and perplex "sneeze-guard" screens separating seats. Such responses are immediate and necessary but will do nothing to ensure the workplace remains relevant into the post-pandemic era.

What we all truly seek is meaning, purpose and connection – the best organisations know this and the best offices will shift in design to enable these qualities...

Many suggest that the current pandemic will result in the rebirth of cellular offices. But this fails to comprehend the key purpose of why anyone would now want to come to work – surely not to sit in isolation at a desk. Recent experience has evidenced that most knowledge worker tasks can be decentralised (and performed at home) without a significant loss of productivity. So why work from the office, when you can work anywhere?

Taking the long view, the extended period of isolation that many of us have been through during the pandemic, should bring into focus a rediscovery of the mercantile origins of business and our innate desire for connection, collaboration and community – something which is not possible via the virtual world and a flat screen. By capturing this, offices will become the crucible of community within an organisation and the foundations upon which a company’s culture is built. We all seek meaning, purpose and connection – the best organisations know this and the best offices will shift in design to enable this.

The shifts are already under way. We will soon appreciate that we are in a condensed phase of change in which we will realise many aspects of “best in class offices”, previously thought to be fanciful or beyond commercial consideration. There are only limited barriers to the tech needed for the “touchless office”. Our smartphones will take care of all lingering concerns about social distancing, including calling lifts and avoiding sharing elevators with anyone un-vetted or un-traced. Nano-septic materials that destroy harmful bacteria will be commonplace on those surfaces that we do come in contact with.

Concerns about patients’ sensitive health information is likely to recede with the roll-out of tracking of daily movements, contacts and even temperature as is already the case in some other countriesEarle Arney, CEO and Founder, AFK

Data will also play a huge role in the future office. The 9/11 tragedy is a relatively recent example of our willingness to relax elements of privacy for security enhancements – in the span of a few weeks, covid-19 has turned our own nation’s views on confidential health data on its head. Concerns about patients’ sensitive health information is likely to recede further with the roll-out of tracking of daily movements, contacts and even temperature and other physiological changes as is already the case in some other countries.

It is conceivable that the right of entry to the best office buildings may well be permitted on the condition of passing a daily scan that is seamless to the entry sequence. Our firm is already designing buildings that replace security barriers with facial recognition technology to augment touchless access. Heat scanning is also being mandated in many locations and it is predicted that such technologies will be linked to touchless entry to office buildings creating a fluid arrival and most importantly, the workplace becoming a refuge of safe quarantine.

There are now overwhelming financial and sociological drivers that will ensure the new office is markedly different in its purpose and function to the staid workplaces of old. In London we will increasingly look to countries who already effectively deploy free-flowing space to ensure the workplace is an instrument to attract and retain the best and brightest. From our work in Canada and Australia we know that the data of such environments evidences how successful they are at building culture and nourishing our natural inclination towards sociability – something we will all strive for in the workplace of tomorrow.

Those buildings with “good bones” that can be adaptable will rise in value. We will see an increasing take-up of systems weighted to wellness incorporating circular economy materials such as CLT - even if only used in part - to enable adaptability of use beyond the limited life-span of a single tenancy.

...buildings with “good bones” that are also adaptable will rise in value.

This pandemic will only accelerate such adaptions due to the economic imperative of ensuring offices remain relevant to the now altered nature of work. In my opinion, we are at the threshold of accelerated change that will enable us to breathe new life into the workplace – resuscitating it to become a tool of business and engagement, rather than an environment in which to oversee and monitor workers.