As businesses return to whatever “normal” is after two years of pandemic disruption, they are finding it might not be as easy as opening doors and welcoming employees back to the traditional office. How we view the workplace is changing.
Sixty-six million years ago, a giant meteor hit, wiping out the dinosaurs and forever changing earth’s ecosystem and the course of evolution. Two years ago, COVID-19 hit the human race much like that meteor, forever changing society and the business landscape. The old ways have not completely disappeared, but the built environment is undeniably changed and will need to adapt and evolve to meet new business needs and realities.
From the chaos of COVID-19, a new business ecosystem is emerging some are describing as the “Home-Spoke-Hub” paradigm. The “Hub” can be thought of as a transformed central office. The “Spoke” takes different forms and connects to the Hub in ways I will describe later. The “Home” is the ubiquitous office space many employees were suddenly forced to create in spare rooms, attics, and kitchen tables. This article will explore general concepts and specific technologies to consider enabling each of these symbiotic community pieces to thrive in a new world order of business.
In the wake of the pandemic, the sudden need to work from home took many by surprise. Many of us were forced to come to terms with a make-shift office environment in a home setting not designed for that purpose. But we adapted. We evolved.
In a previous article, “Consider These Five AV Tips to Improve Your Work-from-Home Space,” I explored work-from-home (WFH) essentials to help improve efficiency and productivity at a high level (i.e., acoustics, camera selection, furniture, and more). The following offers a more detailed set of suggestions to complete the transformation of the modern home office for today’s new reality. To create the home office of today (and tomorrow) that synergistically melds with this evolving business ecosystem, individuals and organizations should consider:
Physical Space Let’s face it, not all home offices are created equal. Many of us have had to face less than desirable setups at home. Personally, the first half of the pandemic meant working in a cluttered attic with very poor lighting next to the cat’s litter box. As the date to “return to normal” continued to be pushed out, it became clear to me and my family that the office furniture upgrades, improved lighting, expanded Wi-Fi, and relocation of Mr. Fluffy’s relief station would not serve as a long-term solution. Like many others in a similar situation, we were fortunate to be able to seek a larger living space better suited to our needs. Topping the list was a better home office.
While not everyone is able to make such a move, statistics indicate many are taking advantage of the paradigm shift to remote working. Workers are leaving the often more expensive and congested urban centers for more affordable and pastoral settings. A well-appointed and connected office makes that possible.
Whatever the zip code, here are some specific considerations for setting up a home office:
Isolation Booths: Previously a staple in the home recording industry, and more recently adapted to the work environment, so-called focus/phone pods are making a strong play for the home office. As manufacturers develop more portable means to enable privacy, acoustic isolation, and comfort at a reasonable price, these could quickly become must haves for remote workers.
High Tech Chairs: Ergonomics will continue to dominate attention as the home becomes a place of not only work but also entertainment and relaxation. I foresee a time when tech innovations evolve to track biometrics, haptics for reactionary triggers and notifications, as well as health monitoring. Sensory immersive “gaming chairs” already on the market are transporting players to virtual online worlds creating real time, tactile experiences. Adapting chair inputs to notify you when you have a message in your inbox or a call coming in can be the real-world office equivalent of more naturally connecting with coworkers. Sensors can also be programed to engage soothing massage therapy based on elevated stress levels detected through biometric scans. The perfect seating position can be attained by automatically adjusting height, support, temperature, and other variables to improve worker productivity. I believe these are all a natural extension of existing technology.
Next Generation Desks: Wherever the office, many workers continue to be glued to the chair behind a traditional, fixed desk. The sedentary life it promotes does not foster much opportunity for good self-care. Here are a few solutions workers and organizations may want to consider to improve the health and well-being of all:
Sit-Stand Desks: Already a staple in the modern home and workplace, sit-stand desks have become essential for the modern worker. They allow individuals to easily elevate the desk workspace to a standing position.
Treadmill Desks: These became popular to a segment of the work force over the past few years. Further development in this arena would certainly address the lack of movement so many of us have faced during the pandemic.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) Desks: This concept involves integrating furniture with sensors and software to help improve worker health conditions while at the same time providing companies with vital statistics on staff engagement. Using sensor technology, employers can track presence at the workspace and correlate that data with engagement monitoring tools. Such AI-enabled furniture can also generate alerts when employees need to mobilize or queue a shift from sit to stand based on pre-determined times. With management struggling to adjust to a remote workforce, having real-time metrics on the health and engagement of their team could be a game changer.
Modular Furniture: One of the biggest complaints that home workers have is there are too many blurred lines between work and home. Many are forced to work with limited space, often in kitchens and dining areas. Some tech firms have begun to address this with innovative space-saving approaches, taking up the mantle to “live large in a small footprint.”
The most crucial bridge between the home office and the workplace hub has been dubbed by many in the architectural field as the “spoke”. This is a relatively new concept that could see a dramatic influx of technology innovation. How can we make the transition between the disparity of the home and the workplace more fluid?
Satellite Offices: Some organizations are exploring the concept of satellite office space to curb the commute times as well as reduce the heavy investment of leasing a larger office space. These satellite brick and mortars could provide technology as a service, reducing the need for a company to continuously upgrade their hardware and allow for third-party IT support teams to assist on a contractual basis.
Autonomous Transportation: A less conventional interpretation of the spoke is the time and space spent going to and from the hub office. As the business world evolves, so does the automobile industry. I believe we are currently on the cusp of the implementation of true autonomous automobiles. Tesla may have blazed the path for independently diving vehicles, but we can’t ignore the 10-thousand-pound gorilla in the room: Amazon. The company has invested massive amounts of money in developing autonomous systems across its entire portfolio of services. Eyes should be firmly fixed on how this technology develops as we may find workers demanding a more autonomous means to travel to the workplace hub when required that also offers the comfort and multi-tasking advantages of the home office.
HyperLoop and High-Speed Rail: As previously noted, many workers are choosing to relocate to more affordable and rural settings while still working for a company remotely. While this can be an excellent way for organizations to attract and maintain a strong and talented workforce, there are still times when it may be necessary to bring everyone together. High-speed rail service is already well established in many parts of Asia and Europe. It is also gaining traction in the Western United States. Tesla’s HyperLoop project promises to offer travel speeds upwards of 750 mph making it possible to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than 30 minutes using magnetic levitation and vacuums to propel passengers in a nearly airless tube.
In my previous article, “Why the Office Isn’t Dead: The New State of the Post-COVID Workplace,” I argue for the continued relevance of the central office building. While I stand by this assessment, I also recognize the shift such hubs are undergoing. As previously noted, the recent pandemic continues to shape how we think about company headquarters. Instead of being the one-stop shop for all employees to gather each workday, the new hub will feature:
Increased Focus on Health and Safety: Building owners and operators are well advised to invest in upgrades that demonstrate their commitment to the well-being and comfort of their tenants and visitors. Indoor air quality and other real-time health monitoring are becoming more valuable to employees than access to an on-site fitness center. Certifications, such as the WELL Health-Safety Rating for buildings will also help workers to confidently return to the office either full-time or on a hybrid schedule.
Re-Imagined Office Spaces: Many companies are already planning to downsize their existing space to adapt to a more flexible and transient workforce. Instead of having a dedicated space, many employees will reserve a desk for those times they need to be physically in the office. Other spaces will be reconfigured to capitalize on what a central hub does best: Bring people together to collaborate, bond, and work as a team in person. That means creating spaces to gather safely with the proper technology to brainstorm together while also including remote workers.
Evolve to Meet New Expectations: Working from home has created a new normal which many employees are reluctant to give up. Something as simple as getting up from your desk to read a report while sitting in your favorite comfy chair should be factored into the new office equation. Hubs need to create a variety of spaces to attract and retain workers.
Create an Event Space: One of the advantages the hub offers that the home and spoke do not is a vastly larger workplace with a greater potential for gathering groups of individuals for training and sharing ideas without the obstacles a video call poses. With a larger landscape to work with, fully immersive audio-visual experience spaces where an entire room has presentation capabilities can provide workers with a digital canvas to share content with others. Seeing everyone’s concepts visually in a larger space can be quite revealing. For those of us accustomed to going to the cinema and all the frills involved with that experience, I propose the in-office visit needs to become more of an “event” where the conference room has features that call to action. Think of it as a children’s museum for adults.
Don’t Forget Nature: While technology is key to the future of the hub, we cannot ignore the need to make these environments feel more natural.
Plant life and natural lighting is key to an inviting work environment. Technology can be seamlessly integrated into this, further augmenting the experience.
Consider a sound masking solution that provides speech privacy while at the same time using more natural ambient sounds than the traditional “HVAC noise” associated with sound masking systems.
Digital signage can further support this concept by providing visual content, enhancing the calming cues that help to inspire creativity and mindfulness.
Lighting and HVAC systems can be tied directly to space utilization software that measures activity while tuning into circadian rhythms, adjusting to seasonal temperatures, measuring and responding to the presence of toxic air particulates all while helping elevate worker productivity.
Completing the Circle
From a built environment perspective, it is clear the Home-Spoke-Hub ecosystem is the new reality much discussed in these turbulent and evolving time. We can take comfort in at least one constant in the formula: people will continue to live and thrive in spaces that provide the means to work, gather, collaborate, commiserate, and in short, connect as human beings. Our goal is to continue to build upon nature’s perfect stage to make those connections possible in new, exciting, and ever evolving ways.
With articles like this, Senior Audio Visual Consultant John Doylefreely shares his knowledge and experience as part of his commitment to ESD’s mission to improve society through the built environment.
For more information on how to adapt technology to the post-COVID workplace, reach out to John.
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