5 Trends Driving the New Post-Pandemic Workplace

Photo: MathWorks Apple Hills 2 Campus, Natick Mass.
MathWorks Apple Hills 2 Campus

The longer we work from home and away from our colleagues, the more being together matters. Zoom is not a replacement for human connection and a shared experience — either with our extended families or with our co-workers and teams. We want to meet face-to-face, socialize, brainstorm, and connect with each other again. This is how we build community, strengthen relationships, coach and mentor, and reinforce our shared purpose and culture.

Employers will not need to sell the upsides of the office to their employees — they already know them. Post-pandemic, most office workers are looking forward to returning and prefer to spend the majority of their workweek there too. The Gensler Workplace Survey 2020 found that while workers have some new needs and expectations driven by COVID-19, most of the issues and trends raised were already here pre-COVID — and were just exacerbated by the pandemic.

Here are five workplace trends that have been accelerated and now are driving priorities for the new post-pandemic office:

1. Mobility: Workers will now expect the ability to work remotely, and the autonomy to match work to the right setting far beyond the pandemic.

Many organizations, including Gensler, maintained strong productivity when they suddenly had to transition to work from home last March. This was not a surprise, as our pre-COVID research has consistently shown that people who spend at least a portion of their typical workweek outside the office have higher workplace satisfaction, job commitment, engagement, and score higher on indicators of innovation. We’re not the only firm to measure this; Gallup writes that in order to attract a new generation of talent, companies will have to adopt a forward-thinking mobility strategy. The most recent Gensler Workplace Surveys in the U.S. and among global regions found that those in a “hybrid model,” or those balancing days at the office with working from home appear more deliberate with how they use their time, have better awareness of what their colleagues are working on, and have higher job satisfaction overall.

2. Choice: Employees’ variety of work settings must now include the home.

Workers’ desire for choice in the workplace is not new. In Gensler’s 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey, we found that employers who provide a spectrum of choices for when and where to work were seen as more innovative. They also had higher-performing employees. And in 2016, we found that innovative companies spend more time collaborating away from their desk and spend only about 3.5 days (74%) of their workweek in the office. That doesn’t mean that there is a one-size-fits-all strategy for all companies: many workers depend on specific resources at their office. But the nature of work is changing — we’re becoming more versatile, agile, and collaborative. We need a wider array of solutions — both inside and outside the office — to support all workers. And as cities begin to reopen after the pandemic, third places, such as coffee shops or coworking spaces, will likely re-emerge as additional choices.

3. Privacy: Many workers already struggled to find privacy in the workplace — now they expect to maintain the privacy they have become accustomed to at home.

The trend toward more open environments has led to the rise of shared or unassigned seating to provide more space for collaborative areas for group work, but to the detriment of space for focusing or personal use. Employees don’t want a complete reversal of these trends, but better space allocation. In 2019, we created a “degrees of openness” scale to measure workers’ total work environment, accounting for the balance of open workstations with enclosed meeting, team, and focus rooms. We found that “mostly open” workplaces were associated with higher performance and greater experience, but noise, privacy, and the ability to focus remain key determinants of workplace effectiveness. Striking the right balance of open/private and individual/group spaces will be key in the future.

4. Unassigned seating: Already on the rise, but with new employee concerns about sharing.

Just months before the pandemic sent office workers home, the Gensler Workplace Survey 2020 reported that that workplace effectiveness was in decline. And those in unassigned seating were struggling the most. We reported that those who adopt unassigned seating must do so deliberately and strategically. But COVID-19 complicates matters. Workers overwhelmingly favor a desk assigned only to them and are not willing to trade an assigned desk for increased flexibility to work remotely. Organizations will need to develop innovative space reservation programs to balance space utilization, employee and team schedules, and safety considerations.

5. Health & well-being: Great workplace always supported more than just work — now people expect health and wellness to be built into everything.

In Gensler’s Germany Workplace Survey 2019, we found that workers’ desire for a healthy workplace was not being met. As workers around the world reprioritize the importance of health and well-being, employers now face mounting pressure to synergize indoor and outdoor spaces, nudge healthy behaviors, and support a sense of psychological well-being. Across the globe, workers have experienced working from home, and many find their home environments provide better access to the outdoors and better environmental adjustability and comfort. Employers must now work harder to establish how their offices and workplace policies can support health and well-being.

As we rethink the future of office space, we must realize that most issues facing today’s workplace weren’t created, but exacerbated, by COVID-19. We now value space and the experience of being together more than ever. The office matters as a place to come together with each other for a common purpose. And for employees, choice, privacy, unassigned seating, and health and well-being are top of mind.

Our pre-pandemic research consistently found that great offices are employees’ preferred place to work. But there’s a catch — offices must be designed to support work for employees to want to use them. Our blueprint for what constitutes a great workplace will evolve as the pandemic eases, but that evolution is built on a deep, global, employee-informed vision of what organizations need to be successful. This is an opportunity to rethink the physical workplace to create spaces where employees not only want to be, but to do their individual and collective best work.

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