What's NXT: When work-life is shaken, offices may need to be stirred

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has required most office-based workplace leaders to double down on future-thinking. After an optimistic spring in 2020 where a swift recovery seemed to be on the agenda, the prospects of virtual life are more real than ever, at least for a while longer. The overarching question many wrestle with is, of course: what happens when the pandemic is over? Will offices flourish as they did pre-pandemic, or will our new habits of working from home, dog-walking, and the absence of commuting hours keep people out of offices?

The office workspace as we know it has been under reconstruction for many years
The question has been raised multiple times during the pandemic: will the mandatory home-office persist after the pandemic? And what effects will it have on future offices? Since office-based work-life was already in the process of being reshaped even before the pandemic struck, the question should be asked in a different way, namely: What kind of production will take place in the office of the future?

A strong driving trend was (and still is) that repetitive tasks – answering customer questions, for example – disappear while tasks that require creativity and the ability to "think" are gradually replacing them. This development's engine is the introduction of increasingly advanced digital assistants such as AI decision support, chatbots, and cloud-based collective knowledge. It is no longer enough to perform one's tasks to the letter if a "robot" can do it better, faster, or cheaper. This, in turn, leaves us with an entirely new paradigm for the kind of production that is to take place in an office. 

The remaining tasks that people have to solve are instead more about finding innovative and new solutions for customers and users, at an ever-faster pace – and all this with increased intensity. This development has, in turn, been accentuated by emerging management models where task-focused, project-based agile teams often work beyond the bureaucracy of formerly rigid organizations. To achieve this, it is often more the rule than the exception that the office-life people are primarily made up of people outside their own formal organization.

For employers and property owners who have a crucial role in developing and shaping future office solutions, it is vital not to stare uncritically at the ongoing issue of the place that teleworking is taking. The first question one must ask is what kind of value creation should take place in the offices. That is, what should we expect to get out of offices? 

Distributed offices?
Even if the transition towards a more knowledge-expanding work-life started long before the pandemic, this trend has gained momentum. Value creation is no longer contained exclusively to the office, but it takes place where individuals happen to be – in the office, at home, or in a public place in the city. The pandemic has taught us that meetings between people actually work even if you are not sitting in the same room.

Digital collaborative and creative tools have made rapid breakthroughs during the pandemic. This provides a new basis for how future work production can be distributed. At the same time, we see two parallel indicators of development that point to what life after the pandemic may look like:

1. The longing for colleagues and a social environment. Many testify that although it is possible to maintain essential labor production during the pandemic, the office is missing. Not least, the building blocks of social life are lost. A digital after-work is not as fun as an AW in real life. The small talk at the coffee machine, a caring manager who on the go asks how you are doing, and environmental change are examples of factors that suggest that the offices will play an important role even after the pandemic.

2. How nice to avoid the commute! Other voices in the debate indicate that the time saved not commuting has meant that new habits have been established. More time to be present when the children come home from school, for example. The long-awaited dog has finally been acquired; working from home has meant that resting for lunch is no longer a practical concern. And less stress about running to catch buses and commuter trains - a welcomed relief for many. Simultaneously, others lack the commuting's own time, i.e., the only time of day where you can read a book undisturbed or immerse yourself in your favorite pastimes.

Both the altered working life and the increased opportunity for distributed offices lead to what we in Swedish chose to call the "loose" working life. Tomorrow's office solutions must both set free and include employers' demands on increased efficiency in the creative thought processes, affirming that production does not longer only take place in the office. The picture above schematically illustrates the working life that tomorrow's office solutions must be able to handle.

Spring's just around the corner for "flexible, magnetic, extended offices"
In the real estate sector, the slogan "location, location, location" has long been seen as decisive. Office properties close to good commuting opportunities have meant higher rents than slightly more peripheral locations. In the future, these givens are likely to change. The position factor will still have a fundamental role, but new commuting patterns are likely to affect which locations have extra relevance. Suppose more people move from the surrounding municipalities of larger cities to villages a further away (a pattern that prevailed even before the pandemic). In that case, metros and trams will lose passengers in favor of passenger and regional train journeys.

On the other hand, offices are also not likely to remain empty. Only a tiny part of the workforce does not want to come into the office, but most are expected to come in three or four days a week. Some property owners have been worried about this because it could lead to reduced office demand. This notion, in turn, is based on the fact that the partially part-time office workers choose to spread their office presence evenly over the week's working days. It is more likely that on some days, it will be extra popular to be on-site to meet as many people as possible. In such a scenario, the office space will be well populated a few days a week and sparser the rest of the time.

A good location, however, will not suffice anymore. Worn-out offices with low ceilings and outdated feel will have a hard time attracting even if they are in strategic locations. That means that there will probably be a more differentiated rental market around the corner, with more significant differences between properties in the same block depending on their condition and shape. Tomorrow's office solutions must therefore be even better at attracting people to come to the office. They must be almost "magnetic", that is, they need to offer an attraction beyond the ordinary. It includes both faultless basic design (lighting, ventilation, etc.), flexibility, smart office solutions at the forefront, and the ability to work seamlessly outside the office's four walls. Here, many office players are in the starting blocks for a whole new level of solutions, everything from intelligent office services to "feel good-promoting" office design and management support. To this picture must also be added the emerging coworking concepts, which will probably soon also find locations in smaller cities and suburban centers beyond the large city centers and thus no longer be exclusive to larger cities. 

For those who want to understand and shape office solutions after the pandemic, there are great opportunities to do so in innovative ways. But some real thinking work is required, where a solid future analysis must form the basis for how both working life and a supportive office life should be designed and better integrated.

Do you want to know more about this topic? Get in touch with Erik Herngren.

By Erik Herngren