As people return to work, just what will the office environment have in store for them? Will it be totally automated or will it even exist? There are “experts” on both sides of the fence.

Some who once predicted that office buildings of the future would be substantially revamped to accommodate greater workplace flexibility now believe that new offices will be configured differently – with greater attention paid to safety and efficiency. But there are others who envision a future more attuned to digital communication than personal interaction who believe that the traditional office has forever disappeared. Both may be true to some degree.

Future Offices: Different or Non-Existent?

The trend toward working remotely was evident long before the worldwide pandemic, forcing millions of employees to work from home or adapt to virtual offices. Until then, there was previously little concern that home would become the most prevalent workspace of the future.

Now, there is some uncertainly about whether the majority of employees forced to work from home during the pandemic will ever return to traditional offices. Some like working from home. Others don’t have jobs to return to. And for many, the future might still be uncertain. The conviction is growing among some companies that it’s not only less costly but more efficient as well to let workers choose their surroundings. There is some consensus that the number of desks needed in existing offices, even in a future of full employment, will be lower than previously believed.

If that plays out in reality, of course, then the long-term effects on commercial construction and development would be enormous, and the world of commercial real estate will feel the ripple effects. According to an April MIT report, 34% of Americans reported that working from home had eliminated their previous long commutes. At about the same time, a University of Chicago study confirmed that about the same number of employees could work from home. The obvious conclusion is that the COVID-19 shift might well be a precursor of future reality.

That, of course, still remains to be seen if, and when, the country returns to an economy that is something near normal.

Technology and Convenience

The twin drivers of stay-at-home work viability, of course, are technology and convenience, despite governmental mandates that proved it could be done. Kate Lister, president of consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics, said back in April of this year that she expects approximately 30% of the American workforce to work from home “multiple days each week” within about two years.

She cites pent-up demand for work-life flexibility and the growth of new technology as factors. The pandemic may have contributed to an early timeline for a shift that was already coming. And increased corporate investment in available advanced technology will make it easier to continue and expand remote working environments.

Employees have also invested in new technology as well as in additional furniture and office equipment that makes the home office more professional and user-friendly as they work together in a time of distancing. For many workers, the only difference between a home office and a high-rise might be the time of the commute and the dress code. At home, every day can be a “casual Friday.”

Is workspace flexibility sustainable? That may be the most important question. The simple answer is: “Yes, for at least some companies.” Again, however, most analysts don’t believe that office buildings or fully staffed offices will disappear entirely from the business environment. Most do believe, however, that both for the short term and in the future, increased flexibility will exist.

Architectural and Human Considerations

The future also may lead to an entirely new paradigm for business. CBRE Group, based on recent responses to a survey of 126 key companies, found that flexibility is a key corporate strategy for now, and it is likely to signal an ongoing challenge for firms in the future. More than 60% of respondents noted that they would consider offering employees more choice about work location on a daily basis, but only about 25% would offer the option to work from home full-time.

What will the office of the future look like? For one thing, desks will be spaced further apart. The traditional, crowded call center has almost disappeared already, and modern office buildings already offer employee options for work stations that are individualized and unique. Teleconferencing has eliminated the need for large conference rooms, and small-group brainstorming rooms are commonplace, as are “quiet rooms” and nap rooms. Shared desks or flex-time schedules are likely to become more common.

Social distancing is a new term in everyone’s vocabulary and also in the actual landscape of commerce. That will not change in a hurry. Better cleaning and sanitation protocols, clearer barriers between workers, effective customer distancing standards and newer, more comfortable measures to separate employees from customers are all envisioned as answers to health concerns. Voice-controlled lighting and heating, touchless locks and security measures, better ventilation and traffic controls, and numerous technological improvements have been postulated by planners and developers over the past several months.

For now, according to Christine Cavataio, president and chief operating officer at the Cuningham Group, an architectural firm, physical barriers will probably be the predominant fix. She and others believe, though, that architectural solutions will be developed that will change the look and feel of future offices dramatically.

One of the benefits of the workplace, from the standpoint of business development, has always been human interaction, sparking innovation and creativity. If the office as we know it today ceases to exist, according to some executives, business in general cannot be expected to continue as usual.

The Certainty of Change

While the exact direction for the future of the office may not become evident for some time yet, the only certainly is change.

Home offices, virtual offices, co-working spaces, teleconferencing and “telecommuting” all have a place in global business. Which specific designs, solutions and fixes become permanent is, at this point, uncertain. Although office occupancy rates are down, and demand for new space is uncertain, few doubt that the industry will survive and rebound. With that in mind, it is time to look to the future in order to design the options that can help business, office builders and owners and commercial real estate to thrive under new conditions and survive future storms of any kind.

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