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The way of working in offices, which was until recently, will look completely different in the future. The sense of and the appetite for business travel is expected to decrease as a result of positive experiences with, among other things, video calling as well as increased health concerns. Most striking, is the elevated status of the office as a social hub where people like to go to meet each other and to collaborate. Working frequently at home will soon be an indispensable part of business life and will change from an emergency measure (as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak) to a business-critical necessity. These are some of the key points of CEO Eugène Sterken of Royal Ahrend at the official presentation of "A Perspective on the New Working Reality" to the largest employers in the Netherlands on Thursday 30 April 2020.

Royal Ahrend is active in 25 countries with its own production locations and sales organisations and is one of the world's leading companies in the office furniture industry. At the end of January 2020, just after the outbreak of the corona virus in China, a special think tank within the company was set to work on shaping a viable vision of a possible new working reality for the short, medium and long term. As well as outlining this vision, Ahrend also highlights the results of a study (14-20 April) questioning hundreds of larger companies and institutions in the Netherlands about the impact of COVID-19 on the working environment at home, on the road and in the office.

Around 80% of the employers surveyed in the questionnaire expect that the working environment will change after the relaxation of the Corona measures. Currently, the market indicates that in the near future, an average of 84% of employees will continue to work more from home while around 80% will travel less (internationally) on business and instead use video calling.

Short term

According to CEO Eugène Sterken, who formally chairs the think tank, the discussion in the short term (partly prompted by the appeal of the government to all sectors to prepare for the 1.5 meter economy) is mainly about maintaining a distance' and 'hygiene'. Employers are now asking for advice on redesigning their work environment to prepare for a limited return of employees to the office. The demand for a good working environment at home is currently also very topical, as an important part of the population has to work at home as an emergency measure.

For the medium term, i.e. the period when a working vaccine is not yet available, according to the CEO the discussion is mainly about the continuing shift to and pressure on the home workplace as a result of a significant reduction in capacity of available workplaces in offices (partly prompted by the 1.5 meter measures). This ongoing shift is further reinforced by the smaller public transport capacity, the additional care at home for children and the fact that the workplace at home generally does not meet the guidelines that a responsible workplace must meet.

Long term

“In the long term we need to think ‘holistically’ about a new working reality, in which we will travel less and the workplace at home, like the office, will become an integral part of our new working environment. Hygiene and safety of employees will be absolutely crucial. All this requires management to prioritise the activities that are especially needed in the office (i.e. collaboration, consultation, coaching / training, meeting and concentrated working) and at what time. This is tailor-made and differs per organization. This new way of working also demands extra attention for the style of leadership,” says Sterken.

He continues: “Many companies are now experiencing a digital revolution at an accelerated pace, employers and employees are quickly adapting to new circumstances and opportunities, and collaboration within organisations is taking different shapes. What was not, or only limitedly done before is now suddenly possible”, says Eugène Sterken. “We expect that employers will redefine the function, frequency of use, facilities and hygiene of the workplace (environment) and also the design for future use. More than ever before, the belief will be that the working environment (i.e. the office, at home or on the road) is not only a vital link in the continuity of business activities, but must also work well for everyone in practice. For example, working at home may now seem to technically function well, but the reality is that it certainly does not yet work for everyone. This vision is supported by the questions that we are already receiving from larger companies and government agencies about how they can ensure that employees can work from home in a healthy and fit manner in accordance with the Working Conditions guidelines.”

Work environment redefined by Covid-19 stress test

According to Ahrend, the workplace at home is given a different status than before (incl. Office chairs and desks that ensure healthy work conditions and concentration-promoting furnishing). The trend that an office is a social hub where employees like to go to meet, encounter, cooperate and be coached and trained intensifies. However, distance, safety and hygiene will have a lasting influence on the layout of offices, which will most likely lead to more (permanent) space per employee and more new forms of separation in open-plan offices. Concentrated working in particular is expected to take place from home more frequently in the future. In the longer term, business travel will often take place virtually from the office, supported by the implementation of isolated workspaces and lounges with business class facilities and technical solutions such as Teams and Zoom.

“Every company now has the opportunity to work smarter, whereby video calling (how) and smart prioritisation (what do you do where) and work schedules (when) are linking working in the office, at home or otherwise on the road,” says Sterken. “The stress test that everyone is undergoing now also forces us to ask questions such as: do we let go of the 9 to 5 working hours culture; do we say goodbye to “workplace thinking” in terms of numbers of FTEs or costs per square meter; by working smarter as an employer and government can we contribute to current social issues, including the climate objectives?”

A holistic approach and embracing the new work reality gives employers, employees and government a new perspective on how we can reduce the pressure that gives working at home with children, on the extra tax incentives that are needed to stimulate working from home, on the reducing the pressure on the road network and absorbing peak loads in public transport.

Sterken: “And if we succeed together to embrace the initiated trend of more (responsible) working from home and the use of technology (as a result of this stress test) in an accelerated manner and anchoring it in our company cultures, we must have a well organised family life and guard the boundaries between work and private life, although they will fade. We will then go on the road less often, use public transport at other times and limit the number of flights per year. Perhaps the shortage of roads in the Netherlands is actually not so bad and the nitrogen pollution problem is largely resolved. That makes the working environment in 2020 undeniably a business-critical, but also socially relevant issue.”

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