Your office will look very different when you return. Here's what is changing

Transforming workspaces into IoT-enabled 'smart' offices can ensure that physical workplaces remain relevant in the new hybrid working landscape, according to tech analysts.

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When offices do reopen, there are likely to be some big changes.

Image: iStock/halfpoint

Navigating the return to the office, whenever that might be, will a tricky matter for organizations. At the same time as businesses are looking to reduce the amount of physical office space they own, organizations will also have to grapple with the challenge of ensuring post-COVID workspaces remain valuable to both them and their employees.

According to a report by tech analyst Forrester, the dramatic increase in remote working has forced many organizations to begin rethinking their office strategy, and how they can maximize the strategic value of physical workspaces in the post-COVID era. The success of these plans will largely hinge on making sure workers feel safe when they return to their desks, as well as providing spaces where employees can collaborate with colleagues and get on with important work.

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According to Forrester, leveraging internet of things (IoT)  technology and transforming workplaces into Internet of Things-enabled 'smart' offices will allow organizations to continue gaining value from their real estate investments. The report, called Rethink Your Smart Office Strategy, suggests that workplace leaders will need to focus on five factors: employee safety; space and resource efficiency; individual productivity; collaboration; and inspiration.

"Internet of things (IoT)-enabled lights, desks, and office environments are transforming workplaces, giving employees, facilities managers, and business stakeholders new data and insights to optimize employee experiences, drive productivity, enhance resource efficiency, and attract workers back into office buildings," the report said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, employee safety features high in the list of considerations for reopening the office. "The first priority for your office environment is to create a sense of physical and psychological safety in the workplace," the report said.

This not only means ensuring workspaces comply with social distancing guidelines, but also introducing health and safety checks for employees using the workspace; installing touchless sign-in systems; and significantly ramping-up cleaning and sanitation processes.

According to Forrester, some companies are already looking into mobile mobile apps that require employees to verify that they are infection-free before entering the building. Similarly, other apps are being designed that allow workers into the office on an invite-only basis, in order to maintain limits on building capacity.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the importance of a range of safety use cases, starting with ensuring employees' physical security and extending to those that help them feel confident in entering the building, such as health and temperature monitoring, contact tracing and social distancing, air quality monitoring, and cleaning and disinfection," said Forrester.

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Workplaces will also need to be places where employees can get serious work done without the time-consuming minutiae that often accompanies office life. According to Forrester, businesses should consider whether app-based booking systems for meeting rooms and desks could help employees more quickly find places to kick off work, or if chatbot-based digital assistants could be used for more streamlined admin-related queries.

More fundamentally, IT and technical teams should ensure that strong wireless coverage is available throughout the office, and consider using central drop-off sites for devices that require repairing or troubleshooting.

"Employees are happiest when they make daily progress on the work they find most important," the report said. "Physical offices and office technologies [can] enhance the productivity of individual employees by minimizing or eliminating barriers to productivity and focus."

Tools that give employees greater control over their immediate work environment can also lead to better work, Forrester suggested. Specifically, allowing employees to control the temperature, lighting, and humidity in their immediate workspace.

Some businesses have already put such technology in place: employees at Nordic IT firm Atea use a mobile app that connects to sensors in office light fixtures to adjust the color and intensity to align with employees' circadian rhythms, which might help boost concentration and energy.

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Collaboration and inspiration, both of which have arguably proved trickier since the great office exodus, also need to be addressed in future office strategy, said Forrester, particularly with the emergence of the 'hybrid' workforce. "As COVID-19 lockdowns lift, hybrid work styles will become commonplace as many employees shift between working at home and working in a company office," the report said. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, videoconferencing software was identified as having a major part to play here. With the majority of meetings and team brainstorming sessions now taking place over the likes of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and various other platforms, businesses should ensure that infrastructure to support videoconferencing is deployed office-wide, and simplify the process of joining meetings with 'push-to-join' functionality.

The report said that businesses should also consider creating digital spaces "to encourage water-cooler conversations and informal meetups", or implement digital whiteboarding technology to facilitate work between between office and remote teams.

At the same time, connecting employees to company values can help inspire them to get involved in larger initiatives, with some companies now looking at how they can do this with digital solutions such as large-screen video walls, virtual events platforms, and gamification apps, according to Forrester.

"It will be important for companies to deploy these as lockdowns lift and more employees return to company offices," the report said.

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