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The new minimum viable office

Workplace is suffering an identity crisis. It has been caught out by the homes employees were sent to at the start of the pandemic, settings that, it turned out, were just as good – if not better – at supporting focused work than the corporate places employees had previously been tethered to.

The lockdowns may be long over, but return to office plans are stalling. Why? Because offices too often fail to accommodate the detailed needs of users.

Design has lost touch both with what employees do and the infrastructures they need around them to do it well.

The form is not being derived from functional requirements. Too often, employers are not clear on why they have workplaces at all, or what they want their employees doing there.

It is time for employers to better define the workplace purpose.

The pandemic did not materially change the work employees do. But we did witness an unparalleled acceleration of a previously slow shift: the realisation that 80% or more of knowledge workers could complete much of their work outside the office.

From a research perspective, it means we now have a better understanding of the non-negotiable elements needed to create an appealing, supportive and efficient corporate workplace. It is what we call the new minimum viable office.

Homes that were never designed for working turned out to be pretty good places for many employees to work. The data in that respect is unequivocal: within most organisations, employees’ sense of personal productivity is highly likely to be greater for home-based working than it is for office-based working.

The reasons for that are relatively simple. For nine out of ten employees, ‘Individual focused work, desk-based’ is an important work activity; for around two out of three, this type of work will dominate their workday. We know that work which requires concentration benefits more from environments where employees are satisfied with the noise levels, but most offices are poor at managing noise. Furthermore, the data shows that any work activity that benefits from acoustic privacy is likely to be better supported at home than it is in the office.

In addition, our research has shown that work has become more planned, with a fall in the importance attached to ‘Informal, unplanned meetings’ in favour of ‘Planned meetings’ and ‘Video conferences’. It is therefore no surprise that employees’ sensitivity around things like acoustic privacy and access to quiet rooms have moved up the agenda.

Our most recent post-pandemic data – as laid out and explored in our book The Workplace Reset – captures the experience of 157,880 employees globally. The findings highlight how certain workplace features link to particular work activities. They also show how these work activities align with corporate outcomes.

Flip that around and it means that employers who are clear in what outcomes they want from their workplaces now know which activities should be prioritised. Once those work activities are defined, employers can prioritise infrastructure features which are critical to superbly supporting them. Preferential investment in these specific physical and service features is likely to deliver a greater return on experience investment.

By providing clarity on what organisations want, and then giving employees the environments they need, the value of the office can be better understood.

The Workplace Reset offers a new set of non-negotiable hygiene factors. They are the essentials for effective workplaces in a post-pandemic era. They establish an architectural and service level baseline that will help build an affinity between the employee and their office. Once these essential needs are fulfilled, extra amenities can then further amplify the experience.

The Workplace Reset details eight critical workplace activities and 23 physical and service features that form the fundamental foundation blocks for a new minimum viable office. Many activities and features are already delivered well in most workplaces. Items like ‘Desk’ or ‘Computing equipment, mobile’ consistently meet with the approval of most people who say they are important to them. But equally, some items are habitually ignored despite being critically important to employees, such as ‘Quiet rooms for working alone or in pairs’, ‘Noise levels’, and ‘Temperature control’. It is common to see less than a third of those who say these are important to their work actually satisfied with these features and the support they provides. These items are hard to get right – but that is no reason to stop trying.

The Workplace Reset has identified a process that will support you in ensuring the workplace does not continue to fail its users.

 First, clearly define the overarching purpose. Then prioritise and address the functional needs of your employees. Because only then can you begin to develop the physical form.