In response to emergency social distancing laws that came into effect in March 2020, office workers all over the world had to adapt quickly to a remote working schedule. Working from home was part of a global effort to control the spread of COVID-19. It was driven by the need to maintain economic activity in the face of a natural disaster.
Nearly three years on, the pandemic has abated. Social distancing laws have been lifted, and workers can get back to the office. But for many businesses, the role of the office is changing. It has a new look; a new personality; a new function. It’s part of a hybrid work model.
In the Middle Ages, the home and workplace were typically combined. Carpentry, blacksmithing, pottery, fletching, milling, weaving, tanning, shoemaking, brewing, pharmacy, hospitality, and many other occupations were carried out in the same space where a family ate and slept. Terms such as alehouse, tavern, inn, and hospital are all derived from words for “dwelling”.
Not all trades were conducted from home. Agricultural workers, members of the militia, and domestic servants, for example, went out to work. But the Industrial Revolution, which began in the second half of the 18th century, ushered in a different way of working for a much larger portion of the population. Machine production methods meant that workers moved to an employer-provided environment and used equipment provided by the employer.
In an economy characterised by mass production and human resources, the workplace and the home became separate entities.
In the 1970s, American physicist Jack Nilles began to research the economic, social, and environmental implications of teleworking, a term he coined in 1973. Mr Nilles wrote several books and papers on the subject of “moving the work to the workers instead of moving the workers to the work”. During the last twenty years of the 20th century and the first twenty years of the 21st century, there was a gradual increase in the number of hours worked from home.
With the benefit of flexible working hours and no travelling to and from the office, working from home has proven to be, for many people, a comfortable and convenient way of working.
In a survey by the Chartered Management Institute and the Work Foundation, 88% of respondents said they’d like to work remotely at least one day per week; 25% of this faction preferred to work remotely full-time. Research by Microsoft and YouGov reveals that 51% of UK workers (who at present have the option to mix remote and office working) would quit their jobs if that option were taken away.
So, how are employers enticing workers back to the office?
Threats (“come back to the office or you’re fired”) and bribery (“come back to the office and you can have a gym membership”) aren’t effective ways of bringing the workforce back into the office. Not for the long term, anyway. Anger and dissatisfaction – or simply lack of engagement – will have a negative impact on productivity and retention.
Many employers are turning to a hybrid working model.
Hybrid working is a mix of home-based and office-based work. However, a hybrid working policy involves more than just a reshuffled timetable and low occupancy in the office. The entire working environment must be reshaped to accommodate a new way of working.
Hybrid is the element of where in the overarching concept of agile working – a philosophy of working within the guidelines of a task, without being restricted by boundaries of how the result is achieved.
An office is the central hub of an organisation, where company culture blooms. It’s the face of a business, which should communicate positively with workers. Time spent in the office should be quality time.
An office designed for agile working is characterised by diversity. For some employees, time spent in the office represents socialising and collaboration. For others, it’s a quiet haven for focused solitary work.
Layout and furniture are important factors in redesigning an office for hybrid working. With fewer workers in the office at any given time, there’s no longer a need for proprietary workstations; allocating a desk to each member of staff is poor use of space. Room dividers – in the form of partitions, shelving units, floor coverings, and booths – can be used to create a variety of discrete spaces to suit all tasks and personal working styles.
Video conferencing facilities are part of an effective hybrid work strategy. Sound-insulated spaces, reliable video-conferencing software, and an efficient room-booking system will enable communication and collaboration between team members in the office and at home. Many organisations use D-shaped tables, which fit flush against a wall. A computer monitor positioned at the straight edge gives remote colleagues a place at the table.
Agile working is a fluid concept, changing and adapting to evolving policies and management styles. For this reason, office design itself must be based on agility. Nothing stays the same, and if office space is to harmonise with the needs of the people, it must be ready to change.
Food and drink are an integral part of social interaction. Whether we’re catching up with friends, celebrating an occasion, attending a conference or business meeting, or going on a date, food and beverages are almost always involved. The sharing of food and drink facilitates communication and forges a sense of belonging.
Eating together at work is probably the most effective team-building exercise. By providing facilities and opportunities for shared meals, a company has a better chance of building a robust culture of collaboration and trust.
Hydration is a vital part of staying healthy. The provision of pure hot and cold water – in a way that encourages employees to hydrate – is a must for the modern office. Aqua Libra Co’s energy-efficient, sustainable water dispensers are designed to meet the needs of any office, no matter how big or small.