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Covid-19 to cause four "macro shifts" for the future of the workplace, finds Steelcase

Dezeen promotion: working from home during the pandemic has changed people's expectations of their workplaces, according to research from office design leader Steelcase.

The Steelcase Global Report finds that issues concerning safety, productivity, comfort, control and a sense of belonging – all stemming from experiences over the past year – will lead to changes in the way that offices are designed in the future.

"After spending months at home during a crisis, workers have never been more in touch with what they want from their work and workplace," reads the report.

"They have new and increased expectations of their employers and workplaces — desiring a dramatically different and better experience than the one they left."

Steelcase's report identifies four "macro shifts" that it believes organisations will need to address as employees return to working at the office.

These trends were already developing before the impact of Covid-19, the research suggests, but have been accelerated as a result.

Design for Safety

Safety has emerged as the primary cause of change in office design going forward.

Companies will need to reassure their employees that the office is a safe environment, by enforcing measures that minimise risk of infection.

"Pre-pandemic, when organisations addressed safety in the workplace, their focus was primarily on occupational health and safety standards," reads the text.

"Now, they will need to take a multifaceted, systemic approach that prioritises mitigating the spread of disease."

Steelcase's research found that offices will likely become multi-functional environments

Social distancing measures, such as spaced-out furniture and partition screens, could form part of a long-term safety strategy, while advanced HVAC systems can monitor and maintain safe levels of humidity, filtration, air dilution and air movement in a contained space.

Companies will also need to optimise cleanability, by specifying materials that reduce the spread of infection. Sensor technology could also be introduced, to identify high-traffic areas that need to be cleaned more regularly.

Design for Productivity

During the pandemic, many suggested the office would develop into a social hub, primarily centred around group work and meetings, while focus work would primarily be carried out in the home.

However, the research indicates that the office is more likely to develop into a multi-functional environment.

In all 10 countries surveyed for the report, employees identified "collaboration" as one their top five requirements for their workplace. However, eight out of 10 also listed "focus".

"Moving forward, organisations will benefit from creating multimodal spaces that support collaboration and focus work equally," reads the report.

"The workplace can't simply be a social hub that brings people together with the expectation that individual work will happen at home. Research tells us this is not an inclusive strategy since many people struggle to focus at home."

It is recommended that workspaces provide spaces that support four types of activity: in-person collaboration, virtual collaboration, privacy and movement.

Design to Inspire Community

In every country surveyed, people identified connection to others and a shared sense of purpose among their top reasons for wanting to return to the office.

Although working from home offered some benefits, many also found it to be an isolating experience.

Workers desire comfort and flexibility from their workplaces, the report discovered

Going forward, the indication is that the most successful offices will promote community amongst their employees.

"Organisations will need to rethink the purpose of the office from simply a place to work to becoming the infrastructure for building social capital and fostering a sense of purpose and belonging," reads the report.

Design for Flexibility

The research identified a clear need for comfort and control in the future workplace.

Those who have been comfortable working from home, in terms of their physical, cognitive and emotional needs, will demand the same from the office. Whereas those who have been uncomfortable at home will be more acutely aware of their comfort needs.

Similarly, people report being more able to reconfigure their home environment to suit their needs, whether that means moving furniture or changing the temperature.

As a result, flexibility looks likely to become more important than ever in the office.

"Organisations need to design spaces that can be easily adapted, especially as more flexible work policies are implemented," reads the report.

"The workplace must be designed to provide individuals and teams greater control over their environment so they can change it on demand."

Steelcase's Design Principles 

Additionally, Steelcase has compiled four design principles for workspaces that meet new employee needs. These include Me + We, Fixed to Fluid, Open + Enclosed and Braiding Digital + Physical.

Me + We involves balancing the needs of individuals and teams. It aims to create environments designed for both focused and collaborative work to ensure a professional working environment.

Fixed to Fluid encourages greater flexibility and mobility, championing spaces that can change to fit individual and organisational needs.

Open + Enclosed provides both enclosed "me" and open "we" spaces. According to Steelcase, individual workers may require shielded working environments "to control privacy and safety". It also references how teamwork may require increasingly flexible spaces that can change based on their activities.

Braiding Digital + Physical advocates enhancing human experiences with technology. It aims to create solutions for group and individual video interactions – not constrained to phones or laptops – to support artificial intelligence-guided or data-driven experiences.

The full report is available to read or download on the Steelcase website.

Partnership content

This article was written by Dezeen for Steelcase as part of a partnership. Find out more about Dezeen partnership content here.

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Illustration for Steelcase annual workplace report