Op-ed: How the Needs of Today’s Employees Prompt Tomorrow’s Workspaces

We’re getting to a point in our society and in the workplace where our needs for the modern workplace are outgrowing our current work spaces.

The workspaces of today that we are all familiar with look nothing like the workplaces of two centuries ago. Even the office spaces of two decades ago look strikingly different from those we work in today. Technology’s breakneck pace and our constantly changing needs are prompting a rapid transformation in the way we utilize office space.

The evolution of the modern workplace

It wasn’t until the 1700s that office buildings took off as a popular concept. The office space that spurred the boom was London’s Old Admiralty Building, which was originally constructed to handle the mountains of paperwork generated by the British Empire’s vast Navy. The East India House, built by the East India Trading Company, soon followed.

In these first office buildings, company executives typically utilized the workspace, but open-plan offices rose to prominence as companies expanded during the late 1800s and early 1900s. During this era, employees sat in rows of desks, while managers circulated to monitor progress. These early workspaces saw far less emphasis on teamwork and employees’ emotional well-being than we see today, with employers keeping workers as busy as possible and restricting their communication.

The inventions of electricity, elevators, and air conditioning ushered in an era where office buildings reach for the sky. As skyscrapers incorporated private offices, restaurants, and conference rooms, the idea that workplaces designed to boost employee morale would also boost employee productivity began to take root.

With an explosion of suburbs in the 1960s, working in an office setting became the norm, and office buildings began to resemble those we see today. The German concept of Bürolandschaft proposed the importance of creating a place where employees could talk together and share ideas — a concept that ushered in the modern emphasis on workplace collaboration.

In the 1980s, personal desktop computers became commonplace. During this time, cubicles sprang up to box in each employee’s private desk and minimized distractions.

With the advent of internet access in the 1990s, companies branched out around the globe. Office spaces bustled worldwide, but a drastic change was in store. The turn of the century saw the first employees begin to leave their offices and do work from their homes.

Workspace needs have outgrown offices and workspaces.

Today, our workspaces are undergoing a rapid revolution, with 43 per cent of employees conducting some or all of their work remotely in the U.S. alone. Thanks to digital advances, these workers can accomplish just as much at home as they did in the office.

Employee collaboration is as essential as ever, but in today’s workspaces, many workers share ideas and interact digitally. Cloud-based software enables employees to access the programs and data they need from any location, while collaborative platforms like Google Docs allow employees miles apart to work together on projects. Additionally, task management systems like Asana enable teams to assign projects and track progress, and messaging apps like Slack allow employees to stay connected and organized across a variety of conversations. In addition, video conferencing technology, such as Zoom or Google Meet, enables employees to communicate one-on-one or conduct group meetings effortlessly.

With these advances, it’s no wonder that employers are embracing the cost savings of remote work, allowing their leases on office spaces to expire in ever-growing numbers. In fact, 20 per cent of U.S. office spaces are now vacant.

In place of permanent office buildings, a new concept of facilities that provide shared physical office space and resources for independent contractors is on the rise. These co-working spaces give remote employees a place to participate in in-person meetings with clients, co-workers, and employers.

The global pandemic prompted a worldwide work-from-home experiment. Though remote work was already being attempted by some, Covid only accelerated its mass adoption. While some employees have already begun returning to their former offices, the workspace of the future will never be the same again.
Tomorrow’s workspaces must evolve to meet future workplace needs.

The workspaces of the future will incorporate more IT gear and less paper than ever before, as the continued shift towards digitization will require IT infrastructure both at home and at the office. It also means tomorrow’s workspaces will be virtually paperless, as paper-based procedures not only require physical proximity and tedious manual labour but are also error-prone and expensive. Because of the nature of remote work, traditional methods are giving way to newer, more efficient electronic processes offering greater speed, searchability, and “auditability.”

The hybrid and remote workplaces of the future will continue to boast greater digital efficiency, but they cannot get around people’s need for other people. It’s not the small talk, social groups, or office parties that people miss so much as the people themselves. Humans are naturally gregarious, and they need to interact meaningfully with other people. They won’t miss the commute, dress code, and shared restrooms of yesterday’s office buildings, but they will miss the collaboration.

The transformation of today’s workspaces reflects shifting needs, both for employers and their employees. Collaboration and in-person experiences offer undeniable value in the hybrid workplace, but instead of individual workspaces, tomorrow’s employees need areas to facilitate interaction and culture building. As a result, private offices and outdated cubicles will make way for whiteboard rooms and innovation labs.

The workplaces of the future will provide something employees cannot get from home: compelling value propositions for attendance. Though the enticements that draw employees back to the office spaces of the future will evolve — along with changing needs and technology — they will center around employee instruction, access to niche resources, concentrated periods of teamwork, and personal interaction.

Steven Cornwell is the Global Director of ERA-co, currently living in NYC. Over the course of 20 years Steven has garnered an international reputation for developing leading brands from a broad range of sectors including real-estate, place, culture, consumer retail, media, transit & infrastructure and professional services. ERA-co is a global place brand specializing in data science, research and insight, user strategy, urban systems and brand experience.