Three shifts to help organisations navigate a post-pandemic future

The levelling effect of a global pandemic touches every aspect of life: home, work and all the places in between. At Herman Miller, we believe that problem-solving, human-centred design means supporting people wherever they are. Once organisations acknowledge that work can happen anywhere, the goal becomes finding ways to best support people at home, in the office and beyond – with an understanding that workers may seek out each spot for different reasons.

To contextualise our past research with the current needs of customers, our Global Research and Insights Team embarked on a six-month virtual listening tour, entailing more than 160 conversations with leaders from a range of industries as well as real estate and interior design firms. Almost every organisation we spoke with is in the process of re-evaluating their workplace strategy to prepare for a post-pandemic future.

From our perspective, this widespread openness to change is exciting. We’ve identified three of the most important shifts that workplaces everywhere must make to remain relevant. When you’re ready to explore further, we’ll be there to help you augment your workplace strategy with products, settings and programmes to help your people do their best work – wherever they choose to do it. 

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated workplace trends that had been slowly germinating for years. Chief among them as we look to the future is the reality that distributed work is here to stay. Through the early weeks of the pandemic, organisations and employees alike struggled with the sudden shift to remote work. But a year after the initial lockdowns, business leaders have warmed to the idea that their people could stay productive away from the office, at least for part of the week. Up to 70% of organisations are planning for at least some portion of their workforce continuing to work from home.1 Research from Harvard Business School confirms this, with more than 81% of office workers saying that they do not see themselves returning to the post-COVID office five days a week.

Several approaches to distributed work have emerged, from the “binary strategy” (in which organisations view employees as either office workers or remote workers) to the “remote-first strategy” (in which working from home becomes every employee’s primary mode). The fastest-growing approach – and the one we feel has the potential to help most organisations thrive in this new reality – is one in which most employees exercise autonomy in choosing from a broad array of options both within and beyond the office for where they’ll work on a given day. This so-called “hybrid strategy” presents organisations with an opportunity to holistically address the needs of a highly diverse workforce with a focus on equity of experience. This means considering the needs of remote team members as well as their colleagues in the office. 

A myriad of factors can affect an individual’s productivity and engagement – everything from work styles, location of colleagues and project deadlines, to home office conditions, parenting responsibilities and physical/ sensory needs. And these factors are not fixed; they can change from day to day or week to week. By trusting employees to make choices based on their daily tasks and preferences – with support whether they choose to come into the office or work from home – organisations can reshape the office into a sought-after destination for those social and cultural connections that cannot be recreated virtually.

Even before the pandemic, offices were struggling to consistently support people and their work. For many organisations, the physical office didn’t keep pace: It was often generic and too densely planned, while deprioritising remote work. However, when given a choice, many employees had already begun working from home, co-working spaces, cafés or elsewhere. As we look to the future, we see an opportunity to reshape the office so that workers feel less anchored to it and more buoyed by it, as facilities focus on hosting experiences that the isolation of the pandemic robbed from us all. What can organisations do to make their spaces more desirable as on-demand destinations for employees newly empowered to work anywhere? From data provided by more than 19,000 users of Herman Miller’s WFH Ergonomic Assessment tool3 and other sources, we have identified three core experiences that the office is uniquely positioned to support. At Herman Miller, we’re focused on helping customers evolve existing environments with products and settings specifically designed with these experiences in mind. (continued) From substantial investment to competitive edge Reshaping office space around three activities not supported elsewhere Community socialisation. Team

Community socialisation

While most of us have found virtual ways to maintain a sense of connection to our closest friends and family over the past year, our “weak ties” were largely lost. This outer circle of acquaintances – whether that’s the building concierge who is on a first-name basis with everyone, or the co-worker from another department with whom you like to make small talk – is vital to an individual’s social health.4 Building these relationships is also critical for establishing and maintaining culture, and helping people feel a sense of purpose and belonging. By providing areas that encourage people to interact with their extended networks, your office can help re-establish these connections.

Team collaboration

In the prevailing model of workplace design, individual workstations are “owned” or assigned, and group spaces are shared. But organisations looking to seed spontaneous socialisation and concerted collaboration need to flip this to more of a neighbourhood model. In this model, team space is owned, while individual spaces are shared within it. When workplaces practise neighbourhooding in this way, they better accommodate longerterm collaboration while also creating opporunities for those spur-of-the-moment chats that cannot be scheduled via videoconference.

Individual focus

The past year has stressed our homes in many ways, with spare bedrooms called into duty as classrooms, gyms, offices or all the above. And for those of us without a room to spare, the realities of children, roommates or extended family have made it difficult to even find a corner to work in – let alone actually finding focus. For these individuals, a return to the physical office can provide a respite for concentration and focused work, given the right spatial set-up.

Technology has been reshaping work for decades, but it took a virus to change the office landscape overnight. In the early months of the pandemic, many organisations focused on adapting their spaces to provide safer work environments and limit the spread of COVID-19. However, organisations are now turning their attention to broader perspectives on employee well-being. Our view is that to be effective, this shift must emphasise adaptability in a deeper sense. In the past, a workplace setting was considered “flexible” if it could be reconfigured for different uses by a facilities or maintenance team. As organisations plan their return-to-work strategies, however, the power to adapt a space needs to rest with the people working within it. Change is always expected whenever any workplace moves from construction to post-occupancy. That said, it has never been tougher for organisations to plan for these changes than now, as employees return from this prolonged experience of working from home. We believe that shifting investments toward furnishings and tools that fit into existing floorplates can optimise space to embrace change. These kinds of adaptable solutions will meet rising expectations for autonomy, choice and user control.

Key insights

We’re here to help

The workplace is evolving. The future may seem like it’s arriving faster than ever, but change is a constant, and aligning the needs of people to the potential of desirable and productive workplaces has always been a cornerstone of Herman Miller’s point of view on office design.

We are prepared to help navigate this evolution with insights, products and services to help your people feel supported at work – wherever work happens. Do you have questions about implementing a hybrid strategy with work-from-home options? About creating settings to best support the core experiences that employees missed when working away from the office? Or investing in assets that can blend with existing environments to improve user-initiated adaptability?

Contact us to get started.