A more purposeful approach to the workplace

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Melissa Marsh with Mike Sayre
by Melissa Marsh with Mike Sayre
3 November 2020
In many parts of the world, people are used to spending half or more of their waking hours at work. The conditions and environments in which they work have a huge impact on their wellness and ability to perform. 

Melissa Marsh and Mike Sayre are from Plastarc - a member of the 100% Human at Work network, supported by Virgin Unite. Below they share how businesses can take a more purposeful approach to the workplace.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had significant impacts on lives and livelihoods. Many places are going to see ongoing public health and economic consequences for years to come.

As organisations figure out how to navigate this challenging period, they would benefit from re-examining some of their basic assumptions about the nature of work. The modern economy inherited many elements of its structure, practices and culture from the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps chief among them is a factory-based model, in which people commute to a central location in which work is done. 

The mass shift to telework we have just witnessed may hasten the demise of this model. Even before COVID-19, the cost of distance was decreasing rapidly. Some of the people who have switched to telework might not ever go back to the office. Others will return to a workplace that functions very differently from the one they left.

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Telework and Purposeful Occupancy

The last few months have seen a stunning shift in work habits among knowledge workers. Before the pandemic, the proportion of people working outside of the office had gradually ticked up each year, but surprisingly slowly given the ubiquity of telework technology. There are many reasons for this, but inertia may have been the greatest. 

Managers have sometimes resisted a perceived loss of accountability, and employees who choose to work remotely have been left out of meetings, dismissed as uncommitted, or unable to participate in the office culture. That has all been challenged by the mass telework of the last few months. 

At the same time, the need for physical spaces has not disappeared, and probably will not any time soon. Many people and employers still need places where they can commune and collaborate. Given that some level of physical distancing is going to be necessary for the foreseeable future, organisations are going to be practicing some version of blended accommodation. How can work environments evolve to better serve people in this new reality? 


A more purposeful approach to occupancy, based on what people actually want, is the key to delivering the optimum blended office and telework experience. This starts with workplace research. People expect their office to be more than just a desk and a few meeting rooms. This evolution in expectations was already in progress pre-COVID-19. The mass shift to telework just kicked it into high gear. 

Workplace amenities have become even more important than they were before. In the past, not enough research has gone into deciding what to provide, which is why so many places have defaulted to coffee and beer instead of childcare and grocery delivery.

Smarter Buildings for Blended Accommodation

The future workforce is not entirely distributed or entirely collocated - it’s both. Managing the blend between the two can be eased considerably by building systems. In addition to making the building more comfortable and usable, smart building technology can offer performance benefits for enabling blended accommodation. 

Employees in many organisations are returning in tranches to offices that were not originally designed for shift-based work. There may be markedly different seating plans and significantly altered access to the amenities that shaped their experience and the colleagues they rely upon. In addition, they may be concerned about their safety. 

In the short term, smart building technology can mitigate some challenges of COVID-19. The records generated by room booking systems, climate control, lighting systems, building security, and destination elevators can make it substantially easier to perform contact tracing. On a longer timeline, potential performance benefits abound. Room and desk booking make it easier to coordinate occupancy in a way that supports business objectives.

As employers and employees continue to adjust to the new normal, there are opportunities to enact positive change. Through careful consideration of what people need from their environment, the future workplace can be made more flexible and higher-performing.

- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.