Workspaces, not workplaces

Will 2021 see a large-scale return to the office? Or will we continue to favour remote working? Aura CEO Alpesh Unalkat thinks neither will be true – he believes a hybrid model is the future.

As we move into what’s been dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution – where technological breakthroughs from biotech to artificial intelligence blur the boundaries between physical and digital worlds – we always knew that the workplace would be transformed. What we didn’t know, until March 2020 at the earliest, was how speedily this would start to occur.

Before the global COVID-19 pandemic made the headlines, we had conceived Aura to reimagine the workspaces of the future. We could see the potential to bring the frictionless experience of popular consumer tech into the workplace, to create a connected environment in which people, devices and data could securely and seamlessly interact – reducing cost and complexity for the organisation, while simultaneously improving individuals’ experiences, as well as boosting business agility, sustainability and resilience.

Accelerated rates of workspace technology adoption

It’s this vision that we’ve seen rocket into the wider business community’s consciousness – not just early adopters – faster than we could have imagined, as mandatory lockdowns have forced companies to re-think where and how their employees perform their roles. I’d hazard a guess that the first 10 weeks of lockdown probably saw a decade’s worth of workspace advancement; the pandemic has supercharged the process that was happening anyway.

We’ve seen previously-unheard-of levels of new tech adoption, even in groups that would traditionally have been resistant to switch from their tried-and-tested methods of working, because they simply had no other option. And everybody has had to adapt – individuals, companies, institutions, not-for-profits, governments… nobody has escaped the impact of pandemic-related directives which limited both personal and business activities so significantly. We can be more confident than ever before that even the most wide-ranging change management can be successfully achieved during a digital transformation.

In perfect balance: remote working and in-person interaction

In addition, we’ve seen how a solely-remote working environment can be less than ideal – both from the perspective of temporary home office spaces perhaps not being ergonomically suited (working on a laptop on a kitchen table rarely offers the comfortable posture of a correctly adjusted office chair, desk and PC set-up), and also the fact that successful team collaboration and business relationship-building often does need some face-to-face time.

In the fullness of time – exactly when will depend on how quickly the vaccination programme and other measures can eradicate COVID-19 – I believe that the ‘next normal’ will be a hybrid working model. Although of course, some will go back to ‘business as usual’, for a significant number of organisations the office (whether HQ or regional) will become a centre for creating culture and a sense of belonging, as well as a space for in-person collaboration and relationship-building meetings. The home office (or remote working facility) will offer a commute-free option that suits individual work and deep thinking. An employee’s location will have more to do with the nature of their work on any given day than their role, as such.

New thinking: achieving the business outcomes that matter

This change, to a choice of workspaces depending on the task in hand, of course requires another shift – to an outcomes-based work culture, rather than an hours-based one. This requires trust on both sides, but ultimately it can be positive for all. Presenteeism is avoided, ensuring better productivity, while an improved employee experience (no more having to book a day off to wait in for the boiler to be serviced, no time spent travelling, and maybe also the option to tailor one’s daily routine to suit individual circumstances) can ensure better performance. There’s also the fact that this flexibility will help to attract top talent to an organisation, and then retain them.

But as I’ve said, we don’t know what that timing will look like. Some large organisations have let their staff know they won’t be expected back in the office until late 2021 or even 2022 – they can use the office before then if required, of course, but it’s not mandated. Certainly, the coming year will be a year of transition. Remote working solutions were set up within a shifting business landscape, under intense time pressure, and many companies have very much been heads-down, focusing only on battling through the present, to remain operational.

There is however light at the end of the tunnel. With the vaccination programme now underway, and tougher restrictions helping to control the spread of the virus in the meantime, we can start to look forward to shaping the future.

Time to reflect, plan, and implement considered change

And what a future it promises to be. The great acceleration in the use of technology, digitization, and new forms of working can be capitalised upon. Of course, many of these emergency solutions will be clunky and suboptimal, but their adoption has proved to everyone – business leaders, employees, and other stakeholders alike – that digital and physical workspaces can be blended far more effectively than some might have imagined. It’s now a case of moving towards a more considered, organisation-specific, tailored tech-enabled environment, in which the physical and digital workspaces combine seamlessly, for a better experience and better business outcomes.

At Aura we are poised to help our clients achieve the next-generation digital transformation that will ensure their business can become more connected, agile, resilient and sustainable, in a volatile economic climate. By creating technology ecosystems which smooth the way for digital and physical workspaces to support the hybrid working model, we focus on ensuring better efficiency and productivity, better budgetary value, better agility and resilience, and a better experience for all stakeholders, to unlock business potential.

Our purpose was always such, but the pandemic has meant that it has become more relevant, and more in demand, more quickly than anyone could have anticipated.

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