The future of workspaces
Bernardo Montes de Oca
May 6, 2020
  |  

The future of workspaces

Bernardo Montes de Oca
May 6, 2020
  |  

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Amidst this ever-changing crisis, companies -startups included- are trying to come to grips with the new realities of workspaces. If you are a founder who has already built a team of co-founders, consultants, and even employees, here’s what to expect as we shift towards a predominantly virtual landscape.

Prior to this pandemic, telecommuters hovered around 4% of the working force in the United States. Now, 34% of the employee workforce that once commuted is working from home. Questions still linger, from sustainability to work conditions and work-from-home policies, but one thing is clear. This pandemic has changed the way we work. Many companies, including Slidebean, have gone fully remote. 

By doing so, companies ran into immediate challenges caused by the overwhelming lack of awareness our culture has around remote work, employee health, and office spaces. 

As the economy takes a beating, some businesses consider reopening and while massive companies can adapt to change by sheer force of will, small businesses and startups have to double down to maintain productivity and profits

Remote is here to stay, but not without its challenges

One might think that startups had it easy when we all moved to the remote mode. After all, we’ve been used to international teams, remote chats with investors, and whatnot.  Small-scaled businesses could be thought of as flexible and easy-to-adapt… but is that so?

This crisis has shown that more jobs can and should be done remotely than we expected. But a shift towards remote isn’t easy, says Laurel Farrer, the CEO of Distribute Consulting, in this piece by Built In. Her firm focused on remote work strategies, has found that it takes typically six to 12 weeks for a smooth transition

Such a timespan is understandable once companies begin to sort out the minute details surrounding such a transition, and you know that, for startups, 12 weeks is a lot of time. They range from proper cybersecurity measures to the right hardware and broadband for the job, going through new policies and redesigned contracts. With COVID, some companies had just days to solve them. 

Which is why companies like TaxJar have gone to great lengths to provide tips and advice on how to successfully run a remote business, whether it is starting from scratch, or transitioning from physical working spaces. 

Author Heather Wilson explains that the first step to any remote working conditions is trusting employees to perform their duties. To establish trust, an organization needs a clear, concise, and constant process of communication, well-defined KPIs and objectives are just some of the key aspects Wilson highlights. 

TaxJar echoes Laurel Farrer and highlights the importance of the right tools for the job. A company, whether big or small, has to provide tools or help employees get them. Hardware is the most evident challenge, but the organization should also provide suitable software for video conferencing, task management, and agendas, understanding that what works for one organization might not work for another. Fortunately, the array of options in the market has grown. 

Proper remote working conditions are key to maintaining employee satisfaction and happiness. But telecommuters might find benefits in other places. And this isn’t due to the crisis. As far back as 2017, studies showed that employees in remote conditions saved up to $4000 a year, due to reduced spending in transportation and other costs. But this also reflected on the companies themselves, which saw savings of $11 000 a year in some cases, thanks to strategies like flexible schedules and a reduction in in-office costs. 

Remote working conditions offer many perks, yet one question arises regarding employees.

What happens to company culture when we go remote?

The break room, the water fountain, lunch hour, and even the commute to work gave employees a chance to bond. But it was also a key element in the transmission of company culture. Virtual meetings and emails instead of face-to-face conversations can be seen as a challenge when startups and small businesses want to transmit company values. 

These very same company values are essential for the development of engagement in remote working conditions, as a study from Walden University showed. The study states that

“(…)remote workers experience strengthened and sustained levels of workplace engagement more when working in environments where they have a personal connection to the organization’s mission and vision, and where they feel the work culture is familial(…)”

PeopleG2 CEO Chris Dryer has highlighted, in this article by Built In, that remote work requires major change, even in the tiniest of details. One example he presents is that collaborative meetings should be the norm in a virtual setting, instead of one-on-ones, to promote transparency and equal knowledge. But it doesn’t stop there, as he explains in this article. 

“(Companies) had these ideas about workers having to be together, that if you can’t see them, you can't manage them. Now people are being forced to do something different and finding out there’s real value in it. It eliminates all of the driving and traffic and stress. And employees who can now work without interruption and may be far more productive than they’ve ever been.”

But immediate productivity itself is a topic for debate. While experts like Dryer and Farrer agree that, with the right conditions, productivity can increase considerably, some experts consider the total opposite, like economist Nicholas Bloom, who believes the lack of adequate space, noise, distractions, and the lack of a schedule might be too much to overcome.

In order to ensure themselves the right environment for productive remote employees, startups and small companies have to strengthen their core values, KPIs, objectives, and communication channels, as well as a revision of work-from-home policies.

What about office spaces?

Although many companies, up to 56% around the world, have some sort of remote work implemented, reality sets into those companies that are unable to do so and still need offices. What to do in these times of crisis? 

One thing is certain: cramped spaces and artificial ventilation will no longer be the norm. Office spaces need to be readapted. 

Before COVID, advocates for denser cities pushed for more people in smaller workspaces, as it was believed that denser cities were more sustainable. Though this might still hold some truth, the pandemic has dictated its own rules.  

But downsizing, though it seems the logical option, might not be right, after all. Individual workstations now require more space between them. Shared spaces like meeting rooms require complete overhauls in their form and function and high-transit areas have to be adapted to a newer, healthier mindset. 

It’s not about going smaller, but rather more efficient. So, it’s not farfetched to see the implementation of more automatic doors, transparent separation between working spaces, buttonless elevators, and antibacterial fabrics. The downside is all these changes require money and time. 

So, what are you to do with the offices you rent in the meantime? There are two main variables that companies can control, and they are inextricably linked: more strict health and safety practices within the workspace and flexible working schedules.

First, with regards to disinfection processes, the CDC constantly releases recommendations for increased cleaning within the workspace, considering scenarios like having a COVID-19 infected employee. These guidelines are no longer for a niche market such as food and medical facilities. Proper hygiene and disinfection will become the new norm in startups and companies, big and small. 

If changing/reducing workplaces isn’t possible and all hygiene procedures have been implemented, then the other key aspect with a company’s control is the schedule. By alternating shifts, workdays, and opening hours, companies can regulate the number of employees within working spaces, ensuring safer conditions. 

Plus, a shorter workweek has shown positive results in some cases. Classic examples like Toyota have set industry standards by lowering their workdays to 4 and weekly hours to 30

Some experts swear by these practices as they believe lesser work means lesser stress and healthier employees. Author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is one avid supporter of a shorter workweek and wider working spaces. In his essay published in The Atlantic, he is clear on one thing: we can’t go back to how we used to work if we expect to reopen businesses anytime soon

But one thing is certain, the corporate real estate market is suffering, and will continue to suffer. Startups are unable to come up with rent and there have been recent reports of tenants packing and leaving their workspaces, regardless of the consequences. 

And so, office rentals have no income. Some states like New York have had to adjust tenants’ and landlords’ rights due to this situation. 

So, for startups and small companies alike, it is imperative to constantly check local laws, decrees, and regulations, as they might change during this ever-evolving situation and vary from location to location. 

Did the pandemic kill coworking?

You did enjoy having the flexibility to work from home mixed with the occasional opportunity to work from a cool café or a coworking space nearby, right? In the past years, coworking has grown at considerable rates, as facilities and culture improved. But 2019 saw a sudden change in this market, as giant WeWork was hit with controversy

Then the virus hit coworking hard. WeWork suffered a major financial blow as one of its most important shareholders had offered to buy some shares but, in view of the crisis, decided against shelling out $3 billion to help in the company’s survival.

So, this combination proved deadly to the coworking giant as all of WeWork’s offices around the world are practically empty. But this isn’t the only case. Scott Harmon is the CEO of Swivel, a company dedicated to selling software for leasing office space. Many of his clients have simply left and, in an interview with Protocol, he considers this moment for coworking spaces “an Armageddon”. 

Real Estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle conducted research and released its own perspective on the future of coworking. And, like Harmon’s, its projection is not positive:  

With people moving in and out of coworking hot desks on a regular workday, one seat could have been shared by multiple people. This will challenge coworking operators moving forward to institute greater cleaning practices. More critically, however, it may change the appeal of working alongside strangers, and in unassigned seats in any office environment, at least in the short term.

And, in actuality, not all telecommuters can work from their own homes, be it because of infrastructure, silence and even faulty internet. Remote workers need a place to work. In fact, now more than ever, when virtual meetings and conferences are and will be, the norm, a proper working space is necessary. 

Not just remote employees, but small startups are faced with the challenge of finding a new office in which to work with. Investing in real estate, in these particular times, is out of the question for most, even with the possibility of some loans and grants. Which is why coworking spaces are still a valuable option. 

But finding the right one might not be so easy. This is why some companies have taken the initiative in helping both coworking spaces and possible customers understand this situation better. Coworker.com, a website dedicated exclusively to coworking recently launched a survey and released the findings of the actions many coworking places were taking to deal with this atypical situation.

Results center around the cancellation of events and closing meetings rooms, to prevent larger groups of people. Other actions include newsletters with information about prevention and recommendations, limiting the number of participants in coworking, and posting signs with instructions for proper sanitation. 

But all these actions will have little effect if individuals, startups and small companies are all reticent about visiting these and other workspaces. Anyone interested in coworking shouldn’t be afraid to inquire about adequate hygiene practices and protocols, such as constant disinfection, the presence of adequate facilities such as bathrooms, and additional access to hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Some places might even implement temperature measurement and the mandatory use of masks.

Startups, small companies, individual professionals all need to continue working in these strange times. Their ability to react to a change in paradigms is key. This article is merely one of many tools to help in informing and educating professionals in this ever-changing crisis, as we believe that both information and education are a key step in achieving a sustainable future.