Offices have changed with the epidemic, but Jennifer Magnolfi Astill, a leading researcher on workspace changes, said that many changes are not the first time they are happening now, and they will be Not many will continue. However, an increasingly clear fact is that the epidemic has accelerated the natural evolution of offices, transforming from a work and production space to a state where a learning space is combined with a space for solving complex problems. The current state is like a cable TV package subscription: “A cable TV package provides a set of channels. From this perspective, the office includes a set of space-use packages. The specific content is changing, and the epidemic is promoting This change is proceeding faster and changing more.”
Maniorfi Astir’s research mainly focuses on high-tech offices involving human-computer interaction, and has contributed to dozens of companies including Google, Pepsi, and BBC. The company provides consulting on office space.
Now more and more large companies say that letting employees work from home will become a long-term trend. However, some companies do not have the conditions for employees to work remotely, and some companies require more complex “tools” for their business. Work cannot be done at home, and employees of these companies have to go to the office.
Industry insiders said that there is no doubt that after the epidemic, the company’s temperature detection of employees, employees must wear masks when they go to work, shift work to reduce employee density, and elevator restrictions on the number of passengers will become the new normal.
People in the office design industry also said that the office after the epidemic must ensure that more personal space is provided to employees.
This change will reverse the trend of more and more open offices in the past 20 years.
Over the years, with the inflation of real estate prices, companies in some countries in prosperous urban areas have desperately compressed their employees’ working spaces. Closed offices have been opened, small partitions between desks have been removed, and employees have been standing next to each other. Enable the company to save floor space and greatly reduce real estate costs.
Not long ago, I interviewed Maniorfi Astir and talked about how the epidemic will affect the future of the office. I asked her, her research on work evolution shows that the changes in work we are now experiencing were not caused by the epidemic.
Jennifer Maniorfi Astir said that this transformation has actually been going on for some time. The current epidemic has pushed changes into the spotlight and forced companies outside of the traditional technology industry to speed up to adapt to changes. We have seen that companies and individuals in some industries have no choice but to complete the evolution of office space for a decade or so within a few months, such as using online collaboration tools and video communication by default.
According to observations, the transformation of office space in the technology industry took about ten years. It seemed that it would take so long.
You have been studying, but we have just seen now, what is the specific change?
We found three structural changes in the technology industry, probably starting in 1998. The corporate ecosystem actively competes for a period of time in order to realize the potential of a certain technological innovation, at this time there will be a change. Under this shift, there will be a supply and demand market for products and services, but there will also be problems with the supply and demand of talents and skills. Office space must respond, and the response is usually its own innovation.
The first earth-shaking transformation occurred in the late 1990s. At that time, the start-up companies, now mature companies in Silicon Valley, were racing to explore the potential of the Internet as an innovation. The office space has changed in a few years-the physical layout design has changed, and new digital tools have been introduced-so that employees can participate in the construction of the Internet and make the network the way we see it now. Some changes are simple. For example, e-mail allows you to communicate with people sitting at the table instead of meeting in person, but there are more large-scale changes, such as the development of interconnected corporate office parks.
The second major change is that companies are striving to tap the potential of mobile technologies (such as smart phones, cloud computing, and consequently employee mobility). This round of changes became clear after the 2008 financial crisis, when not only technology start-ups, but also the broader workforce in other industries could use mobile electronic devices. In terms of office space, co-working has emerged: office space that can be rented for a short time at a relatively low price; an open space shared by emerging independent workers and start-up company communities. The network itself can be installed on mobile phones and laptops, so the office space can be bought as a temporary service.
About ten years later, from 2017 to 2018, the transformation we are now witnessing began, the core of which is to realize the potential of machine intelligence in business. In the future, most knowledge office spaces and manufacturing workspaces will actively seek to solve complex problems with the assistance of machines, such as using predictive models to understand consumer behavior, as well as robots and various other forms of human-machine cooperation.
How is it in practice
The third round of transformation revealed two functions that the office of the future needs to perform. The epidemic has made this change particularly prominent in some aspects, but this change itself has nothing to do with the epidemic.
The first point is that the organization needs a meeting space for the team and managers to understand complex issues, discuss action plans, and make decisions together. As we see now, people will use machines to achieve remote meetings. For example, the governor’s daily briefing during the epidemic. The public press conference has integrated a lot of things. What has not been shown is the efforts of humans and machines to analyze large amounts of data to get the virus transmission status and simulate various possibilities and results. This type of work requires space to be able to view the overall situation synchronously and quickly and access data dedicated to machine learning. The operational command room in national defense work, the ground command center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the weather monitoring center are all like this.
The other is the space to learn professional knowledge. To be able to absorb and apply new knowledge to respond to the ever-changing needs of reality, this kind of ability is essential to survive the epidemic. Fresh start-ups naturally have this ability to respond to the team, but a larger mature team can also master this ability after continuous learning.
Both of these functions require physical space and play a vital role in competitiveness during the transition period. Many extreme situations illustrate this point.
What is the extreme situation?
I study the robot design team. They often have to solve problems that they have never had before, and the nature of their work determines that they have to use machine assistance to solve problems. Although this kind of team is very suitable for dispersed mobile office, team members (including humans and machines) still carry out some important activities and learning in physical space.
So the epidemic has accelerated the third round of office space evolution?
Yes, but one thing is important: evolution will not happen overnight. Property managers and chief information officers know that the time scale of physical offices is different from that of remote communication technology, which is determined by the physical nature of the building. For an office building of a certain size, it will take several years from designing a design plan to moving in for corporate users. The speed of technological development is obviously faster.
This is part of the reason why I study extreme cases of startups. Start-up companies will not consider designing office space. This is not the initial core requirement. This type of company will only design a way to complete the work, gradually build the space and provide support for the work. After a period of time, start-up companies begin to expand their scale and need more space to support their mature and unique work model before they can continue to develop their work space.
But to make it clear: the office space upgrade in 2008 is not necessarily a conscious pursuit of office innovation, but a response to unmet urgent needs, and it took about four years to gradually get on track. Co-working offices emerged in this way and eventually developed into incubators and shared office spaces. The evolution of office space is not from top to bottom, but from bottom to top. Changes since the rise of the user tier usually have some practical value and can be sustained for a long time.
Speaking of the impact of the epidemic on the office, it seems that everyone has gone through an entire emotional cycle. The first is to adapt to remote work, feel new and very futuristic. Zoom burnout followed. Then everyone started to disagree. Some people wanted to return to the office, while others didn’t. Many changes have occurred during this period, but which ones will continue?
From the employee’s point of view, this is not a linear change. It is not a faster change, but a sudden situation that has to be adapted. This point must be made clear. Many employees are forced to work from home.
We are concerned about which changes will continue, and what important enlightenment this forced home office experiment can give us. As far as the work itself is concerned, the actual effect of suddenly shifting to remote work is much better than many people expected. This is the case from the data in the early stages of the epidemic. A recent questionnaire survey covering 50,000 employees also shows that 75% of people are able to concentrate on completing team tasks and personal tasks under current circumstances. On the other hand, people work longer hours every day, blurring the boundary between work and personal life. This result is expected in an emergency, but in normal times, this situation cannot be sustained.
Some effects of the remote work experience during the epidemic will remain. Our perception of office space will undergo permanent changes, reflected in the four basic functions of the office: focus, social interaction, cooperation, and learning. In the early days of the lockdown, the most talked about was focus. Cooperation has been redefined, and companies outside the technology industry have quickly learned new ways of cooperation. But recently we have heard more discussions about social functions. Over time, people will gradually start to miss things in the office that have nothing to do with productivity itself.
In the past, you have talked about the importance of social interaction for innovation and expansion of social networks. “Unexpected collisions” between people and teams can produce better and newer results. Is everyone missing this?
Correct. It is difficult to quantify things other than work efficiency, but the epidemic has made many employees feel the lack of social interaction very clearly. Daily chats, occasional encounters, and drinking after get off work-these little things are very valuable to the company, and will affect the company’s ability to innovate and solve problems, and also affect employee engagement and satisfaction.
My research and those of others have shown that if remote teams can meet in reality, even once a year, they can consolidate their connections and improve teamwork. We know that if people are separated by more than 30 meters, it can be said that they are not in the same space. Therefore, we can design the corresponding office space to allow employees to interact more. We humans instinctively extract a lot of information about the environment and each other, such as nonverbal clues, when we come into contact in reality. This can promote communication, trust and cooperation, allowing us to establish and cultivate a richer relationship with colleagues, and enhance the value of cooperation.
I still believe that the epidemic will make us feel the value of office space bit by bit, and let us look at what we do in the office and the things we value from a meaningful perspective.
In the final analysis: what is the meaning of the office
There are two aspects to this problem. On the one hand it involves more objective work evolution, on the other hand it is the organizational culture and core values. Considering these two aspects, the design concept of office space may change.
Is it not the most important role of the office to improve work efficiency? In fact, the company should not always let employees stay in the office to work, but can improve efficiency?
Maybe so. It depends on the factors that promote work efficiency. Collecting qualitative and quantitative information during the epidemic can summarize deep rules, simulate scenarios, and discuss what kind of work is suitable for the office, and what kind of work is better for remote. Large companies with huge footprints especially want to optimize office space. In addition to cost considerations, many employees also experience fresh work flexibility and autonomy, which is usually only found in startups. Overall it is very good, so I think this represents a new benchmark. Companies and employees have changed, and hope that this flexibility can be partially retained.
In this way, what the office provides for employees is changing?
Correct. This change has been going on for some time. Think of the office space as a set of suites that provide many things at the same time, like a conference, or a travel package, or your cable TV package. There are many things in the package. There will be keynote speeches, group discussions, networking sessions, etc. at the conference. The tour package includes sightseeing, hotel, and others. There are many channels in the cable package.
We will buy the entire package and use only part of it. The part we use is to respond to specific needs, and the needs are constantly changing and evolving. The office package includes the following “space uses”: dedicated work alone, meetings, work meals, teamwork, creative space, operational support, etc.
Structural changes in work, or systemic chaos as we are now, at this time our demand for office space will also change. To put it bluntly, you need a different channel.
In other words, the epidemic forces people to look critically at the office packages they own, just as someone would say, “Why should I pay for channels that I never watch?”
The epidemic is like a magnifying glass. We realized that the office is a package, so we began to question whether some of the things it contained were necessary, the most obvious one, such as commuting to work. We now know that if the social contract allows it, a lot of work can be done without an office. Once you get here, you won’t be able to restore the previous state. Even banks and other companies that were skeptical of mobile office in the past will be surprised to see that they can still maintain their previous efficiency when they suddenly and completely switch to remote office.
Using the analogy just now, the epidemic has allowed many companies to take time to think about “what are the things in the office space package that we still want to use and what can we not?” For example, focusing on working alone, this item can be eliminated in the future, because Now that everyone has a corresponding environment, we can do better at home. At the same time, the company still needs physical office space to allow employees to interact face-to-face under certain circumstances.
We are still in a crisis, and we cannot know for sure what functions the office will retain in the future. But the point is that now our perception of possibilities has changed. The experience of this time has given us a new perspective on what we value in our work and time. I think there will be new ways of cooperation in the future, initially digital office tool innovation, and then physical office space innovation. My research on technology office space shows that the space dedicated to solving complex problems and professional learning may increase in the future office, while others will decrease. The specific ratio depends on the corporate culture and specific needs.
The company may want to start adjusting the space, but the problem is here: the lease term has not yet arrived. The time period of a physical office building is not the same.
But as we said earlier, the epidemic prevented us from going back to the past. The experience of working at home in the past few months tells us that the first step in looking into the future of office space is to realize that the future “office space” is no longer limited to physical office buildings, but also digital virtual space for us to work. The future office space may include a part of physical space as well as digital space.
Not long ago, most office facilities were in charge of property managers, but our experience during the epidemic has taught us that in the future, office space will involve more professionals, from chief technology officers, chief human resources officers to internal communication leaders. This trend will affect office leasing. In terms of corporate real estate, we will see the acceleration of the epidemic in 12 to 18 months. This time we will get a lot of inspiration about office space. After all, numbers don’t lie. In the long run, only 10% to 30% of large-scale office facilities that are working are simply not worthwhile. To cut costs and optimize space.