Defining the future of the workplace in a post-COVID-19 world

The Power of Place 27 November 2020 / By Lee Phillips

There’s no doubt about it, COVID-19 has infiltrated every single aspect of our lives. But what does the seismic shift in human behaviour brought about by the pandemic mean for the workplace – and the businesses and people that occupy these spaces – in a world post-COVID-19?

A couple of weeks ago, we brought together a panel of leading workplace experts to explore how these behavioural changes have disrupted the landscape that businesses operate in, while considering what we can do to respond to the challenges and opportunities that continue to present themselves off the back of COVID-19.

The pandemic may have changed the world of work exponentially, but when it comes to encapsulating brand, creating a sense of belonging among top talent and inspiring creativity, there’s no doubt the physical workplace still has a big role to play. 

This equates to, what we call, the ‘power of place’. It’s a topic which is close to our hearts at ISG, with our proud legacy of delivering workplaces across a diverse range of sectors, and to better understand it, we asked the most important people what they think – those who use the spaces each and every day.

Featuring insights from employees and employers across a wide range of sectors, our ‘Power of place’ research report captures workplace sentiment at the end of 2019 before COVID-19 hit the UK, and then again in September 2020 after many had worked exclusively from home for around six months.

Our findings support the basis that to empower people, it’s important to afford them the tools and flexibility to be productive. Some evidence is emerging to suggest that many industries are seeing both wellbeing and productivity improve in the current climate, despite employees spending less time in the workplace. Equally, it’s true that new ways of working aren’t universally loved.

Employers looking to promote a sense of belonging among top talent will need to respond – by creating the spaces of the future that deliver the best value for businesses, their people and the communities they serve.

Investing in workplace is an investment in people, and an investment for the long-term – it directly impacts sustainability, wellbeing, productivity, and recruiting and retaining the most gifted talent, all of which add up to a brighter future.

One area of our research that draws the eye, and that COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus, is the importance of place and connectivity in supporting our wellbeing.

Wellbeing means different things to different people – what is crucial is to create opportunity and choice. Our research shows the primary reason employees are against working from home 100% of the time is a lack of contact, sense of team, and losing a sense of work-life distinction. Research suggests that today’s talent want to be immersed in brand, so it’s important to create environments that articulate a brand’s values and vision – which is hard without a physical workplace to help share the bigger picture. 

Our data shows that significantly more people who have spent some days in the workplace during the pandemic said they feel proud to work for their organisation, compared to those who have worked permanently at home. On the flipside, those that have only worked remotely over the past nine months stated that fewer days in the workplace is optimal for their wellbeing. 

What this indicates is that the role of the physical workplace goes way beyond a capacity function, and that, as we move into a new age, finding a blend of office and remote working will be key. The workplace looks set to be redefined – it won’t strictly be where ‘business as usual’ work gets done five days a week, but it will be a space of collaboration, connection and an overall brand experience for employees, which will be important if we are to attract people out of their homes and back into the places that deliver value for communities.

Phil Hobbins, workplace construction projects director for property and facilities services at BT, indicated that this is a big focus for BT, as it seeks to inject agility and flexibility into its workplaces, providing friendly environments that not only nurture problem-solving and one-to-one collaboration, but embrace creativity as a product and facilitate those ‘moments that matter’. 

This sentiment was echoed by Caroline Pontifex, director of workplace experience at KKS Savills, who said that many employers are looking to use space more creatively, and rebalance their interactive and focus spaces.

It was interesting to hear Suzannah Nichol, chief executive of Build UK, share the on-site construction perspective. With no remote working option during the pandemic, shared best practice and a learn-as-you-go attitude enabled construction to find its groove – an approach we can certainly learn from as we start to go back to the workplace. 

Suzannah believes that it’s less about attracting people back to the workplace, and more about how we keep them there. On this thread, our findings show that most employees` would prefer a balance of 2-3 days a week in the workplace, and in fact reported slightly more time than employers have suggested would be optimal for productivity. This clearly shows that while employees note the benefits of home working, doing so for an extended period has drawbacks.  

The pandemic may have changed the world of work exponentially, but when it comes to encapsulating brand, creating a sense of belonging among top talent and inspiring creativity, there’s no doubt the physical workplace still has a big role to play. 

With quality home workspace hard to come by, a lack of social connection and the links between the physical workspace and building a personal brand, the fact that a third of younger generations find home working makes them less productive doesn’t come as a big surprise. If we are to achieve the workplaces that best suit the needs of employers and employees alike, it’s all about the right mix.

The perks of remote working – more personal and family time, saving money, feeling trusted to deliver – were verified in our research, and before the pandemic, industries were already focusing on rationalising their estates to save money in anticipation of a more location-flexible workforce, so we were already preparing for this new way of working. Our research shows little disparity between the viewpoints of employers and employees, and if businesses are revising their workplace strategies, there are mutual benefits – reaching a balance that best serves people and business performance may just hold the key.

If a culture of flexible working is here to stay, we could see a trend of people moving away from major cities in the wake of COVID-19. With the war for talent still very much a reality, this may result in a shift in employer sentiment as they begin to see the benefit of following employees, rather than the other way around, and open themselves up to talent retention and attraction. 

Combined with the fact that our data highlights over 30% of employees would be more likely to leave their employer if they didn’t receive their desired work flex balance, I’m confident that forward-thinking companies will look to create spaces that appeal to the world’s most diverse and talented people. Location is a key part of that thinking, and organisations should take this opportunity to consider how they diversify their location strategies for the long term. There is a real opportunity for companies to explore how they can pursue operations in other regions, and where this is the case, work will need to be done to bring these regional hubs up to standard to ensure they support the same performance results.

So, the million-dollar question: what will the future workplace look like?

It’s important to acknowledge that as the purpose of the workplace evolves, so too should the design. Our data highlights that employees value location first, followed by high-powered IT infrastructure, more fresh air and outdoor space. By creating destinations that provide the best for their people, organisations will get the best from their people in return, so the importance of these factors should not be overlooked.

The workplace won’t strictly be where ‘business as usual’ work gets done five days a week, but it will be a space of collaboration, connection and an overall brand experience for employees, which will be important if we are to attract people out of their homes and back into the places that deliver value for communities.

Developers have responded, with many integrating design, amenities, convenience, leisure and culture into the fabric of their spaces. The trick here is to execute a viable placemaking strategy, understanding each location and delivering a space that not only reflects the wants and needs of the people at its heart, but that embraces locality. The knock-on effects are there for all to see – value will be delivered for local communities, people will be enticed back into the workplace, and fresh talent will be drawn to new, exciting cities as we target long-term recovery.

It’s also important to remember that envisioning the workplace of the future is not just an opportunity to build afresh. There’s scope to improve existing workplaces, which means creating places that personify brand culture and values, and that employees can personalise and adapt to their needs in the spirit of a more flexible approach to working.

Lastly, sustainability. Green commitments need to be met if we are to respond effectively to the challenge of climate change, so this should be top of mind as we look to adapt and repurpose commercial property. 

A sustainable future is something we truly value at ISG, and is a future we’re leading on. Early next year we’re due to launch our Sustainable Buildings Monitor, which focuses on the regional variations in emissions produced by the operation of commercial buildings. By understanding the data, we can better support parts of the country that have the most work to do in cutting their emissions – knowledge that will be vital to employers if they are to reduce the operational costs of their spaces, appeal to a new generation of sustainability-conscious people and contribute to a greener, more vibrant future for their communities.

The pandemic has certainly not killed off the physical workplace, but has instead transformed our expectations of what this space will be used for in the future. Moving forward, positioning workplaces to appeal to people and enable them to be as productive as possible, while ensuring spaces are set up to be flexible to whatever the future holds, should be a top priority for us all. Getting the right blend between remote working, technology and providing high-quality space for people will be key in writing this new chapter.

Our research demonstrates an undeniable trend – when people feel positively towards place, they also feel connected to brand values and able to work effectively.

It’s the ‘power of place’, and employers that recognise and harness its potential have an opportunity to get ahead of the curve and achieve a genuine competitive advantage. Investing in workplace is an investment in people, and an investment for the long-term – it directly impacts sustainability, wellbeing, productivity, and recruiting and retaining the most gifted talent, all of which add up to a brighter future.

One thing’s for certain, as the sun starts to set on the pandemic, we have a real opportunity to define the future of the workplace in a post-COVID-19 world.

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