The current COVID-19 crisis has led to a period of isolation for those fortunate enough to be able to continue working, and to be able to do so from home. Here, we look at the future of the ‘traditional’ office post-pandemic and consider if it will lead to permanent changes in the way we work.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the office was central to the daily lives of many workers and was the hub of activity and connectivity. Employees caught the train or bus to the office each day, worked and attended meetings, before frequenting gyms, bars and restaurants close to the office after hours.

Then, at the end of March, and with very short notice, most employees were sent home and tasked with establishing a full-time home office. COVID-19 forced organisations to rapidly reimagine work life, with working from home, video calls and flexible work arrangements quickly becoming the reality of everyday professional life.

Given the speed of which the pandemic took hold, the transition has proven that businesses and their workers can be much more agile and adaptable than many thought possible. So, what does all this mean for life after the pandemic? Will it go back to what it was? How will the traditional office change once people return?

Adjusting to a new working environment

The majority of businesses and their employees have made a smooth transition to work from home arrangements, assisted by technology that has allowed them to stay connected and engaged.

Research from the United Nations International Labor Organization1 found remote working can come with a number of challenges. While employees are often more productive when working from home, they are also more vulnerable to working longer hours and, particularly for those with school age children, have to deal with frequent interruptions, distractions and, in some cases, greater stress.

While some employees thrive in this environment, it can have a significant impact on the mental health and productivity of others. Many workers rely on the office for structure and connectivity and it is central to achieving balance between their personal and professional lives.

Research from JLL2 also shows people still need spaces to congregate and connect in a workplace and the inherent want that humans have for interaction isn’t always met over Zoom or in a work from home environment. The research shows the physical office plays a critical role in facilitating collaboration and, ultimately, for employee health, wellbeing, and productivity.

It is also likely employers will want to see a return to more normal working conditions, with greater visibility over employees’ work and working hours and an increase in personal, rather than digital, interactions. Ultimately, people still want and need spaces to congregate and connect and the office plays a vital role in this.

Shifting employer attitudes

With remote working becoming a necessity over the past few months, it has shown businesses – some of which might have been sceptical about allowing staff to work from home – that it is possible to maintain productivity and communication.

When offices reopen, it is likely employers will be more flexible around work from home arrangements. Communication, transparency and time management will be vital and it may become common practice, for example, for people to want to continue to work one or more days a week from home. It will become important to ensure that employees are aware of their other colleagues’ work practices to ensure strategic meetings and collaborative work is scheduled at the optimal times.

One obvious reason employers might offer more work from home opportunities is to simply reduce floor space requirements, and thus costs, as company balance sheets will take time to repair post-COVID-19. This might also be a prudent strategy to help offset the possible ‘space’ implications of increased social distancing.

Research from UBS3 also shows that while offering employees the option to work from home can contribute to employee wellness, not everyone is equal in this scenario. Having a comfortable space to work from home is not something that everyone has access to and is typically at the cost of the employee. This could disadvantage those who do not have this option available to them.

A shift in office design

In the near term, returning to an office where employees work physically closely with one another may not be completely possible, even as some social distancing measures ease. Employee health and safety post-COVID-19 will be at the forefront of concerns for businesses, meaning office designs and layouts will likely evolve in a post-pandemic era.

To comply with social distancing requirements and ease employee concerns, employers and landlords will need to reassess design and layout of office spaces. De-densification is set to become a trend, a significant shift away from the norm of fitting as many desks, and people, into the office as possible. These changes will also likely reduce the popularity of activity-based working and slow the rise of coworking spaces. This focus on health, safety and distancing may, in itself, lead to a demand for increased space.

In a nod to eras before, barriers between desks may swing back into favour to reduce the likelihood of spreading infection amongst employees. It is unlikely this will reflect the by-gone office cubicle, but rather more along the lines of using transparent materials such as perspex to create separation.

Office design and layout will also need to consider how to accommodate increased employee interaction and connectivity in a post-COVID-19 world. Throughout this pandemic, the value of face-to-face employee interaction for idea generation and collaboration has become evident to many businesses, so creating areas to facilitate this, but in a safe and healthy way, will be vital.

Meeting room usage restrictions will be important, and so too will be boosted videoconferencing facilities to enable continued engagement between those in the office, at home, interstate or overseas.

The way common areas, like the kitchen or breakout rooms, are used by employees will also need to be reconsidered.

Other changes will also need to be considered, such as wider corridors and one-way foot traffic where possible, as well as better air filtration – potentially opening windows to encourage fresh airflow or ventilation systems that flow air from the ceiling down, rather than floor up.

Elevators will pose a challenge for landlords, given the confined space, proximity of patrons and common touchpoints. In order to maintain social distancing, restrictions may need to be imposed to control the number and spacing of people, and touchless elevator controls will increase in popularity.

Hygiene will be central to the safety of the office, so expect sanitisers on every desk, in every common room and at every room entrance. The cleaning frequency of the office area, desks and common touchpoints, such as door handles and railings, will also be increased. In new builds, the use of antimicrobial materials and smarter use of space to spread employees out are set to become common requests.

While COVID-19 is causing employers and landlords to rethink their office environments, there is no doubt a physical office space still has a critical role to play. In the near term, as workers return, the focus will be on social distancing issues. Longer term, and particularly without a vaccine, we are likely to see changes in office design and practices that impact everyone who works in them.

1. Eurofound and ILO: Working anytime, anywhere: the effects on the world of work

2. JLL (20 April 2020) – COVID-19: Global Real Estate Implications Paper II -

3. UBS (23 April 2020) - Global Real Estate Strategy; What’s the structural impact on offices?