The future of the workspace is flexible

As a commercial real estate leader, Tim Kay gets asked the same question a lot lately: Is the workplace dead? His answer: Yes. At least, the workplace as we know it.

Kay is the managing director at commercial real estate service company Jones Lang LaSalle Inc. (JLL) and market leader for the Great Lakes Region, based in Detroit. He believes there will be a rebirth of the workplace that will reflect a new, post-pandemic work environment.

“The office will not go away. It will be different. It’ll look different,” he says, and it will be shaped by the pandemic, technology, and the growing work-from-anywhere realities of our world.

Kay’s insights on workplace design and functionality come from decades of personal and professional experience in the industry, including 14 years at a global furniture company before joining JLL in 2007. His father was also a carpenter and later a general contractor, which led to a natural curiosity around construction.

“I’ve always had an appreciation for how things are designed and built and the mechanisms behind it,” says Kay.

In his current role, he is overseeing the development, design, and construction of buildings and space. He works on everything from hotels and healthcare facilities to workplaces and post-secondary institutions. Part of his job is talking to clients about designing space to accommodate the next inevitable change in how we work.

The workplace will need to be a lot more flexible, which is something Kay says his former company understood when it introduced the first cubicle workstation in the 1960s.

“That was all about embracing change — knowing that change will happen,” he says.

“Office space needs to be flexible and adaptable, rapidly and easily, to support the change in business.”

– Tim Kay

Today, that change includes prefabrication and modular designs to create a more flexible workspace. “People have come to realize that they need a space to ebb and flow with their needs more easily and to move more fluidly than it did before,” he says.

The New Hybrid Work Space

A reimagination of the hybrid workplace was in the works well before the pandemic hit. Organizations were already looking for ways to boost employee engagement, satisfaction, and productivity.

The pandemic sped up this shift, as organizations realized that employees are unlikely to be comfortable returning to the same physical workplace. “There were a lot of [these] trends around how people use space,” Kay says. “COVID accelerated it. Company cultures that didn’t embrace home-officing now know it’s reality.” Companies around the world have changed their policies to allow for more working from home, including Shopify, Twitter, Slack, Microsoft, and French automaker PSA.

A recent survey from S&P Global Market Intelligence found that nearly 80% of organizations surveyed say they implemented or expanded work-from-home policies because of the pandemic, while 67% say these policies will likely remain in place either permanently or for the long term.

When it comes to what the new hybrid work space will be, Kay sees a greater amount of “soft space” being created to resemble more of a collection of living rooms than a workplace. Imagine fewer workstations, more collaboration areas, and some private rooms.

“I’ve seen some designs where you have a bunch of little U-shaped-like living rooms on a big floor plate. Workstations are shrunk and moved down. People can safely work in more of a study carrel kind of environment, or in a little phone booth, or in a mini conference room,” he says.

The alternative layouts accommodate a growing number of hybrid employees who will spend part of the workweek at home and part in the corporate workplace, he says. The workplace will become more of a creative environment and a place for organizations to cultivate their corporate culture.

“The office isn’t going anywhere. It’s critical. It’s where people learn and collaborate, where culture is formed and nurtured,” Kay says. “People have to be together. We learn so much informally, simply by being in an office with other people and overhearing conversations. Maybe one idea is shared that leads to another idea that leads to another idea, and then — boom! — you’ve got some industry- or company-changing innovation that is so critical. That’s not going to happen on a Zoom call.”

Technology-Enabled Seamless Transition

Technology will also continue to change how people work, including how they connect to their job from home and in the workplace.

“Going forward, I think what will matter most to people is having a complete, seamless transition of how they work, supported by technology.”

– Tim Kay

“People will say, ‘I want to go from where I’m at home, dash off to the office, start back up like I always was there. Or if I have to be on a client site, or have to travel across the country or across the globe, I want a seamless transition from workplace to workplace to workplace, driven by my technology and my ability to communicate.’”

For the workplace environment that means more space for video conferences, cloud-based platforms for accessing documents remotely, and anything else that makes an employee want to connect with colleagues and clients both at home and in the workplace.

“The employee experience is everything,” Kay says — and space needs to support it.

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