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Value shift: understanding the future of workplace

Angela Bardino, Design Principal at leading professional services firm, Jacobs, examines employees’ impact on both immediate business and subsequent end user groups.

20/05/2020 6 min read
Miguel Á. Padriñán

Thinking about the future of workplace from a societal change perspective, Angela Bardino, Design Principal at leading professional services firm, Jacobs, examines employees’ impact on both immediate business and subsequent end user groups. Broken down into six ‘dominos’ or phases, Angela discusses workplace transformation, from the immediate through to future solutions – exploring what market demands may be, as society redefines normality.

Phase One: Value Shift

The future of workplace and where that work happens is under a magnifying glass like no other time in history. With unemployment likely to rise before recovery, will companies have their choice of candidates? Perhaps in the short term, as people get back on their feet – although, arguably, there is just as much power in the hands of both the transitory employee as well as existing staff. As people take this moment to reflect and contemplate what matters most to them, ethics, humanity, flexibility, family and being valued for the work they produce rather than where it was achieved, will become additional priorities to a wider demographic. Society will experience value shift across all sectors of our lives.

This taking stock or re-evaluating what is important will be a catalyst for social and political change. Companies that are slow to respond and adapt will inevitably be left behind. Those that are yet to subscribe to alternative working will be under pressure to offer flexibility as their competitors rise to the demand. During recovery, people will align themselves with the company ethos that matches their own. They will remember businesses’ COVID-19 response. Employees will ask new questions; how will you keep me safe? Does everyone where I work get paid sick leave?

Image courtesy of Jacobs

Phase Two: Future Planning & Expanded Thinking

The recognition of the wider workplace (that goes beyond the now traditional agile office or kitchen table) will now be re-evaluated – we have to expand our thinking around what the workplace is, while non-office-based workers will have similar ‘value-shift’ concerns. Promoting safer, more considered working environments for frontline staff who work in the field is key.  The world has realised we are reliant upon their services and respect their contribution to society more than ever, resulting in workplace theories that focus on health and wellbeing applications to non-traditional office spaces, such as vehicles. The fact that we will be living and working for longer will change our workplace needs, ensuring a more inclusive workplace of the future.

Our reliance on technology, evident in our current remote working status, may result in an acceptance that we cannot truly be prepared for everything. Any future event may be entirely different to the one we are experiencing now. Retaining older analogue systems as back up may conversely be the key to futureproofing.

As traditional, office-based companies embrace home working and recognise its value, what will become of their extensive office portfolios, some of which will be tied into lengthy lease agreements and which they may be unable to sub-let in the short-term? Whilst investors and building owners prepare for change of use to futureproof themselves for unrenewed leases that may present themselves in the near to mid-future, how do investors retain their tenants when the glut of office space starts to flood the market?


Phase Three: Adapt and Respond

The answer to both these questions is refurbishment, which will increase as competition rises in a new, crowded market. With bio-safe and data capture making the difference between office A and office B. In the short term, the expectation is smaller interventions to existing buildings by tenants. For example:

  • Keeping a current office until the next break clause but allowing people to continue to work from home so that the office is at a reduced occupancy. Employees will benefit from that extra space as social distancing measures are applied to the workplace as a standard. The remaining workforce will work from home, perhaps on a rotational basis.
  • Technology will play a part in understanding real time occupancies.
  • Mobile phone cleaning stations will be introduced. Shockingly, we touch our phones over 2,500 times a day and often take them to the bathroom with us.
  • Policy and simple process changes designed to protect will be implemented. For example, personal parcels will no longer be accepted in offices to reduce multiple handling and road usage.
  • Other simpler analogue additions may include foot pulls for bathroom doors in lieu of automation.
  • Low-tech foot operated faucets, where automatic dispensers are not viable, will be introduced.
  • Automatic doors and smart lifts take you to your destination, possibly linked to a Google calendar invite – your smartwatch will check your temperature and, using proximity sensors, will tell you when your colleagues get too close in a friendly reminder to back off.
  • Hot desking could be a perceived risk and the desire for desk ‘ownership’ will return.
  • Amendments to heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems will be retrofitted to offer better air quality, which will be monitored, and HVAC will be controlled by artificial intelligence to work to a new capacity, offering much needed cost savings.
Image courtesy of Jacobs

Phase Four: Accelerated Future

An accelerated programme of smart buildings for new build and retro fits emerges, driven by carbon net zero goals and to attract those still looking for rental space. Carbon and building performance will be monitored to attract new ethos-seeking employees and validate green credentials to clients. Data will become even more important, as will the standardisation and regulation of its analysis, with a focus on privacy.

On a wider scale, the desire to avoid touching multi-user devices will see an increase in automation, with Alexa-style voice activation and gesture control devices, perhaps with haptic feedback, combined with augmented reality and virtual reality sessions in both work life and leisure. A new virtual cultural code will grow and assimilate with global cultures, ensuring traditions are protected. Looking to the future, products will adapt: counters may display the number of ‘visits’ at an ATM, pushing us ever faster towards a cashless society. Escalators will change in design, removing the need to hold on for safety. Things will change.

Material advances in antibacterial coatings will be combined with time indicator strips to note how much time has passed since an object has been cleaned or touched. Specification of materials could see a shift from natural textured materials to smooth wipe clean surfaces or smart finishes that flex or are projected on to the surface. Time sensitive materials may become the norm, so they physically change colour when they need cleaning. Think about the heat sensitive colour changing T-shirts in the early 90s and imagine a smart worktop changing colour before advising its okay to use.

Phase Five:  The Penultimate Domino  

Homes will also go through a phase of refurbishment as people embark on a journey of preparedness for what if, to ready their homes, that they now spend more time in, making them more practical and flexible for our new multi-generational, blended lives. When we venture out, it may be expected that our shopping is cleaned prior to delivery and the delivery itself is via drone or, as food subscription services continue to rise, perhaps directly into your back-loaded fridge. This decentralised presence may drive regionalism, with other knock-on effects. An increase in local road may put pressure on councils, with more local spend required to fix them.

With an increase in 3-D printers, items can be ordered online with replacement parts printed directly by the end user or in community hubs – useful in an emergency. For those that can afford to move, the already flawed new builds will be a far cry from value-shifted demands, with energy efficient spaces and access to community gardens and allotments being valuable assets. House builders and local authorities need to respond early to be competitive and reconsider the utilisation of existing empty buildings.


Phase Six:  Everyday Life and Prevention

With workplace lease breaks, enforced companies begin to reduce their centralised space and become more scattered, contributing to regional growth and adding social value to smaller networks as they support alternative workers in new regional locations. Boundaries become blurred between work, home, education and leisure. Companies offer nomadic style personalised packages that encompass everything from work to leisure, education and family. As we become more distributed, that now empty office space will transform into leisure, drone parks and data centres and hold our new virtual life where we once sat. Retail may also rise from the traditional high streets as our lives become more mixed use, reflecting our renewed towns and cities. Supporting our new inclusive connected yet distributed normal – from an established level of comfort we seek to repair and prevent for future generations.

In conclusion, a critical awareness of end user interconnectivity will combine with the realisation that an appetite for positive change can be leveraged for the benefit of society and our environment without business detriment, highlighting the importance of end user awareness and the consequential sector ripple effect as each phase transitions into the next. Understanding new value-shifted goals will surely be a step towards a brighter future for all.

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