In the early stages of the COVID pandemic, employers forced to close their offices told staff that they would re-open as soon as possible - but that not everyone would be able to return at once. When the time came, many struggled to attract back more than 20% of their employees. The implication is clear: people will now only come into the office if there’s a good reason to do so.

“Workplace experience” has become one of those buzz-phrases which is widely used but little understood, still conjuring images of beanbags and furniture in bright primary colours. As in so many areas, COVID has accelerated changes that were already evident; no longer the domain of trendy tech companies and advertising agencies, experience is now right at the heart of the way companies need to think about their workplace.

The desire for more open-plan working that has typified the last decade or two was based on good intentions. Removing barriers to collaboration, providing a wider range of workspaces, and driving more efficient use of space are all worthy objectives. Too often, however, the implementation has been lacking. Cube farms have been replaced with ranks of uniform benches and desks without partitions: noisy depersonalized and with no sense of ownership or belonging for the employee.

We know that the office still has a huge role to play in supporting many crucial aspects of work and maintaining corporate culture and identity35. Nicholas Bloom, the economist responsible for a key study of homeworking productivity,36 is an ardent advocate of flexible working. Yet he still maintains that face-to-face meetings are essential for developing new ideas and keeping staff focused, commenting recently: “I fear this collapse in office face time will lead to a slump in innovation.”37

Workplace strategists are focused on office design that supports interaction and collaboration at a variety of scales. First and foremost, offices must offer employees a range of spaces that positively support their engagement with each other and with the wider resources of the organization. A key learning of our homeworking experience is that much greater consideration should be given to providing appropriate environments for quiet, focused work – free from interruption and conducive to reading, thinking and concentrated creativity. There will be fewer desks, and more outdoor and roof terrace spaces.

A second key requirement is connectivity, allowing individuals and teams to connect with each other and with the data and information they require. A key implication of increased employee flexibility will be the need to seamlessly integrate remote workers into meetings and conversations; no longer a separate category of employee, remote working will be something most people do at least part of the time. Technology that enables this will become a mainstay of office fitouts. Zoom rooms and spaces where “displayed knowledge” can be captured – and more importantly shared in real time with virtual participants – will be the norm, with virtual reality environments playing an increasingly important role.

An 'X Factor' workplace is about far more than technology-rich meeting spaces.
Office managers can learn much from hotel and leisure operators.

As important as they are, creating an “X Factor” workplace that fully supports and engages employees is about far more than technology-rich meeting spaces, it’s about creating experiences that drive innovation38:

  • A holistic workday experience. A day in the office includes the journey to work and other time spent outside the building; employers are working to better support employees’ travel, route-finding and parking, and thinking about off-site as well as in-house catering and amenities.
  • Optionality around a mix of spaces. Not just the space you and your team need, but how to identify it, book it, ensure it is properly set up for your needs, find it … and then use it effectively.
  • Personalization. Employees want to feel a sense of ownership of the space they occupy and will work best when physically as well as emotionally comfortable. Workplace technology can facilitate both, allowing users to personalize the look and feel of space as well as controlling key environmental factors including light, sound, temperature and air quality.
  • Seamless technological integration. Always on, always works, allowing effortless combination of people and information however it’s needed across multiple devices.
  • A curated experience. As the co-working sector has shown, office managers and property managers can learn much from hotel and leisure operators. Technology needs to be combined with human support to allow employees to get the most out of their office environment, maximizing the digital and hospitality experience expected by consumers of today (and tomorrow).

Many workplace interaction points

Physical interactions

In-person meetings; Common working spaces and campuses; Utilize shared experiences and observations with basic pleasantries

Physical & virtual interactions

Largely in-person with a combo of remote and distributed workforces; Increasingly mobile; Utilize key technology and collaboration platforms

Virtual interactions

Remote and distrubuted teams; Increasingly leveraging virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR); Experts connected to distributed workers

There are no “one size fits all” solutions. Given the current pace of technological change, this needs to be viewed as a journey as much as a destination. Think of the uniqueness of our own homes; we have wide-ranging tastes and preferences, especially within the inclusive, multi-generational organizations that most companies now aspire to. The desire to maximize the contribution of each and every unique individual lies at the heart of the “X Factor” workplace; a workplace that will attract employees into the office, time and again, to enjoy a space that truly supports the full range of their needs – and help companies win in the war for talent.

Experience is now at the heart of the way companies need to think about their workplaces.

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