The Future of Work, Part Three: What Will the Office Become?

This is the final story in a three-part series on how 2020 transformed the world of work and the ways in which design can help organizations create a combination of work environments that together support tomorrow’s needs. The first story explained how work has changed. The second identified the characteristics of effective work ecosystems — the new work paradigm. In this story, we illustrate the ways that work ecosystems can offer environments that matter most for those who use them.

Because of the massive workplace changes wrought by COVID-19, we believe we now have the opportunity to rethink assumptions and acceptance of the status quo. Now is the time to focus on how work gets done by reconsidering and reconfiguring where work happens — both in the short- and long-term.

The first step is identifying and prioritizing your teams’ needs to support them in any combination of offices, remote or virtual work locations. Who comes to the office? Why do they choose to do so? What work happens best there? Our work-from-home research shows that employee attitudes and behaviors are changing, and (our concept of) the office must change to support them.

The role of the office within each work ecosystem is unique. It does not reveal a finite office configuration; instead, it identifies the questions each organization should ask to craft the most effective environments for them. Identifying and assessing your work ecosystem elements is the first step in planning for a resilient future. Here is how our design advisors begin to craft work ecosystems that will drive organizational performance tomorrow.

Where Is Work Happening Now?

Understanding how people work should be the priority, expanding the view of workspace from just company-provided (more than just ‘the office’, e.g., shared tenant conference centers, co-working arrangements) to include company-enabled (travel-related venues, e.g., work-travel hotels, employee vacation homes, local coffee shops) as well as, client-provided (e.g., partner sites) and employee-provided (e.g., employee homes and community spaces). This network of spaces eases the pressure on the office to be all and do all for all. Each element of the work ecosystem has a role to play in planning for the future of work.

We begin by conducting an ecosystem audit to inventory all the places your employees work now. This is necessary for both employee and employer to gain a full picture of where work happens today, and where it could happen tomorrow. The work ecosystem includes employee homes, the office, office building amenities, your community, partner spaces, client sites, and other locations that support work every day. We assess the ebb and flow of office use that bolsters human performance, client satisfaction, and community impacts. Each organization and employee will have varying parameters of what real estate is available and appropriate — a critical data point informing longer-term real estate strategy and enterprise portfolio analysis.

”It’s not enough to change how we work. There is a fundamental flaw in where we work. We have to adapt and align both work and place to realize positive organizational outcomes.”-Upali Nanda, Director of Research

Blue-Ocean Thinking

To unearth the places work happens within our own organization, we developed and deployed a set of surveys and workshops to redefine how work could happen in the near future. During the COVID-19 pandemic, while most HKS employees were still largely working remotely, we asked them to reconsider the office and the role it plays. Rather than talking about “getting back to normal,” we shifted the focus to what should happen next? A pre-workshop survey captured individual perspectives about working outside of the office and work-life balance. Visioning Workshops provided both context and a safe space to dream big, enabling us to stretch and collectively identify how we hope to work in the next 5-10 years.

Offices can play a meaningful role in the lives of employees, clients, and the community. Offices that deepen their understanding of how relationships are built on responding to human needs can build their business service with broader and deeper experiences.

We brainstormed the experiences that matter most to our employees and their teams to identify what activities and actions are prioritized for in office, generating an inventory from which to inform ecosystem realignment, real estate consideration and the office of the future.

During our visioning sessions, 56% of participants stated that community building made going to the office relevant and 81% of those individuals said it was the fundamental reason. Some offices used the analogy of the kitchen table or intellectual café where formalities were put aside to talk to, inspire, and elevate each other — employees and clients were families and friends that sat together to break bread and connect in real and meaningful conversations. Regardless of a kitchen table, campfire, or café, the vital differentiator for all these settings was the need to deliver wonder, surprise, enlightenment, imagination, and delight. The role of our office was that physical place where colleagues could bring in food, wine, coffee, or lunch — and within a welcoming casual atmosphere where everyone belongs.

This office’s central component is to offer a meeting place away from the formalities of the boardroom or chaos of the home. This social connection embraces our unconventional design thinking to discuss and debate radical ideas freely among peers — it is a place where the impossible is planned and made real. Determining how this could look within the office, we discovered two types of spaces that complimented the office’s social center: havens and idea theaters. Havens are for groups of three to eight people who need a place to create and strategize together. These havens were described as a digital and physical “hybrid” hub that emersed the project team into each other’s work for real-time collaboration resulting in speed to market deliverables. The idea theater was often described as highly flexible and interchangeable presentation spaces that had amazing views to the active buzz of the surrounding urban landscape or could be screened off for a fully immersive virtual adventure. It was this interplay of fantasy and reality that the office could experiment with to offer clients a stage to unfold the cycle and process of design and artistic vision for the built environment.

Near-Term Planning

Near-term planning sessions work to bridge from ideal future state to current state – outlining changes and milestones needed along the way.

Reboot efforts often focus too much on immediate goals. Prioritizing short-term change can hinder progress toward a long-term vision, resulting in a kind of halfway transition — that which may stifle the transformation for employer and employee alike. Beginning with a long-term vision and then establishing steps to get there enables organizations to be more agile, taking on incremental changes to meet important goal-oriented milestones in the most effective sequence.

The value proposition of the office has fundamentally changed. Yesterday, offices were where we had to work. Tomorrow, they will be where we choose to work to be most effective. It really comes down to asking: “What’s worth a commute when you can be online in minutes?” and “What do you get from in-person collaboration when virtual tools offer different (and potentially better) outcomes?”

The answers to those and similar questions are the key to developing new workplace ecosystems no longer defined by traditional ideas and mindsets.

This research continues to be informed by data collected starting March 13, 2020, of HKS employees via an online survey, senior leadership/office director interviews, and future-focused employee visioning sessions. By continuing to engage employees in dialogue, we’re able to study satisfaction and sentiment over time and be responsive in policy development and real estate planning.

This was project was completed as a part of HKS’ Research Incubator program. This annual initiative empowers practitioners throughout the firm to invest focused time and energy into exploring topics that encourage innovation and a culture of curiosity. To learn more about this program, please contact us at [email protected].