With countries emerging from a coronavirus-induced economic slumber, employers and employees alike have to start contending with a new work-from-home reality that is likely to linger on.
As the pandemic raged and lockdowns and mandatory social distancing were instituted to keep the deadly virus at bay, businesses made their way online, and, to the extent possible, employees abandoned the office in droves and began working from home.
Now, as the pandemic wanes and the global vaccination drive kicks into gear, companies worldwide are facing the question: Are their workers going to come back to the office?
Some, like Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon, have called working from home an “aberration”; his firm is pushing to get workers back to the office “as quickly as possible.” Others, like streaming music company Spotify, have said that they will be letting employees work from anywhere after the pandemic. Twitter and Square are letting employees work from home “forever,” and Microsoft has said that its employees will have more flexibility to work from home.
What is likely to emerge, experts say, is a hybrid model in which employees will work partly from home and partly from the office.
Above video: The office of the future, as imagined by Auerbach Halevy Architects for Check Point (YouTube)
The remote work issue raises questions about the home front: Do workers get the job done as effectively at home? How do you instill a sense of team spirit into employees you never see? But it also raises equally novel yet crucial questions about the office end of the equation: What will the post-COVID workplace look like if not as many offices or workstations are be needed?
“Many people in academic circles around the world are studying the impact of COVID-19 on the spatial design environment, and how office space will be designed and arranged,” said Prof. Eran Neuman, professor of Architecture and dean of the Faculty of the Arts at Tel Aviv University, in a phone interview.
To try and answer these design issues, Israeli cybersecurity firm Check Point Software Technologies Ltd. launched a competition in November for architects, designers, students or anyone with a great idea to help it design the office of the post-COVID future, given that it’s unlikely the work-from-home wheel can be turned back.
The firm’s global headquarters in Tel Aviv is a 30,000-square meter building that, pre-pandemic, served 2,400 employees as well as thousands of visitors from Israel and abroad. After the pandemic struck, the firm changed its way of working, and it assumes that in the future the work model will be a hybrid, with some working from home and some from the office. The firm employs 5,500 people globally.
Check Point is now publishing all 80 submissions, including the three winning ones, after a jury of employees and a professional team of judges — including Tel Aviv University’s Neuman — sifted through them. The concepts were studied and given scores based on parameters such as originality, innovation, utilization of existing space, planning and quick execution, and use of available materials.
There were clear trends in the submissions, revealed Gil Messing, head of global corporate communications at the cybersecurity firm. The main reason to come into the office, he said, is clearly for social interaction, to brainstorm and to use the communal open spaces. Thus all of the submissions made wide use of open spaces from which to work.
Another issue highlighted by the submissions was the need to personalize flexible workstations. When people don’t have a fixed desk at the office and need to book a workstation in advance for use on a certain day, how do you make sure that when they come in they feel at home in their space? Messing said some of the suggestions included equipping the work cubicles with smart screens that would download and display pictures of users’ loved ones from social media pages when they were in the office.
According to other submissions, the office of the future will be anywhere you need it to be, said Messing. Workstations could be scattered around the city like pop-up stores or electric scooters with an internet connection.
Materials chosen for the office of the future must be modular, flexible and multi-functional, with walls that can easily be moved, and perhaps round bubble-like work capsules instead of boxy rectangles or squares.
“We have now set up a work team to see how to translate these principles in our building in a pilot redesign project making the spaces suitable for the hybrid work model,” Messing said. “It is the first time we and employers around the world are dealing with a hybrid model of work. The idea is to showcase and share these concepts with all those who are interested, to help come up with workable and effective solutions for us and others.”
“What was fascinating about the competition is that it is one of the few instances in which a business enterprise is conducting this kind of initiative, collaborating with architects and academia to see how COVID-19 is changing workplace design,” Neuman said. “Check Point brings its knowledge about what is needed, and how things can change.”
All of the submissions, he said, addressed a hybrid model of work — a mix of home and office work. “It was clear for almost everyone that the workplace has changed, and workers won’t be coming to the office on a daily basis anymore.”
“You cannot ignore the big change wrought by COVID-19. It seems we are not going to go back to where we were,” he said.
None of the submissions, however, envisaged a life in which workers stayed at home all the time. “No one suggested completely doing away with the office,” Neuman said.
Most of the proposals submitted were “realistic and implementable,” Neuman said, even though some of the designers were young and inexperienced. “I’m of the older generation,” Neuman said. “But we have to listen to the youngsters, they are the ones who know, they are the consumers of technology.”
It’s the interiors that will change, for now — not the actual buildings, Neuman predicted. “There will not be one office for each employee. Companies that make changes now will have a big advantage over others. We all have to get on board.”
The winning proposal, by Auerbach Halevy Architects, which got a $15,000 prize from Check Point, suggests a multi-functional hybrid space that uses smart, flexible “islands” capable of “adapting and transforming” according to the changing ways of work, changing team members, and days of the week. The proposed space is composed of a variety of subspaces and work platforms – from private, quiet areas to common public areas – with maximal flexibility.
Officity won second place and a prize of $5,000 for its proposal of three kinds of separate office spaces on varying scales in a “decentralized system.” The first is a large living-room office where people come to share ideas and work collaboratively at the firm’s headquarters; unused offices would be leased to third parties. The firm would also set up flexible workspaces inside buildings in the city center, transformed into small office nodes. The third type is small-scale “TO GO” office, which offers workers flexible spaces inside temporary, mobile office capsules distributed throughout the city; these can be relocated to “diverse and exciting city nodes such as the beach,” parks and main boulevards, the proposal says.
Rubi&Gal Design Studio won third place and $2,500 for their versatile shared work capsules equipped with smart screens with personalized pictures, and a work desk with all the necessary equipment.