• 8 min read

Designing Flexible Office Spaces of Tomorrow

A conversation on transformation and workplace evolution in Hungary

by Gabor Kovacs

We all know how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the world. Our lives suddenly became a part of history, and the news was all about the staggering spread of the virus and its effects. Our homes became our workplaces. The conditions sometimes made it difficult to concentrate and execute our tasks. All business sectors suffered from the pandemic, but we can safely say that the office furniture industry has been able to successfully cope with some of the pandemic’s major difficulties.

As one of the world’s leading office furniture companies, we immediately tried to find solutions and develop guiding principles for our customers. As a result, in April 2021, we organized a two-day “Work from Anywhere Virtual Summit,” offering more than 30 conferences to our attendees. Among the speakers were renowned designers, including Patricia Urquiola, Giulio Cappellini, and Marcel Wanders.

Among the audience were many of our Hungarian partners and clients. They all provided positive feedback about the sessions and content. After the event, we pointed out 6 main insights we believe companies must pay attention to if they want to adapt to new office expectations and bring their employees back to the office again:

  1. There is no going back to the way things were
  2. Work from home is here to stay
  3. Flexible is the new black—not just fashionable but a necessity
  4. We’re going to the office, not to work
  5. Organizations need a paradigm shift
  6. Well-being is not a luxury anymore

These expectations are demanding for everyone, but the question now is how to create outstanding offices compared to what they were before, considering the new ways of working. Furthermore, employers face the challenge of updating or creating workplaces that help keep their employees engaged.

Seeking input on future office transformation to support flexible office spaces, I interviewed a workspace expert who attended the virtual summit. Dávid Horváth is the Lead Workplace Advisor & Service Designer at Colliers. His specific approach is to begin working with his customers in the very early stages of a project, setting up workshops as soon as the company decides to move or transform their existing space. His advice influences the whole design of a project. Considering his comprehensive work, I can state Dávid is professional, owning thoroughness and high organizational skills, which I have experienced during shared projects.

GABOR: Dávid, what are your thoughts on workplace evolution due to the impact of COVID-19? How has it affected your ongoing and upcoming projects, especially in Hungary?

DÁVID: I would like to keep the focus on Hungary for now and in particular on Budapest. After all, Budapest has the largest number of offices and office workers in Hungary. We can see two major focuses emerging. The first one is cost reduction. The second one is the new post-pandemic office.

Cost reduction is key for many organizations, but often not seen as a stand-alone goal. Most organizations seek to create offices that positively impact their business performance, which is likely to translate into a larger financial impact than pure cost reduction. Many organizations want to control costs and ensure that offices are efficient, preventing an oversupply of space. In addition to reducing costs, another key element is to make office work more attractive for employees and to strike the right balance between teleworking and office work. However, while cost reduction is a mathematical exercise, rethinking and creating a post-pandemic office is a more complex, long-term task.

Organizations are taking different approaches to developing and implementing post-pandemic workplace strategies. We can see three types of approaches. The choice depends on the wider organizational strategy and real estate related events and opportunities (e.g., lease breaks).

The first approach is to develop new workplace strategies and designs before people return to the office. The second one relates to organizations that decide not to fully redesign their office(s) before staff comes back. Instead, they opt for pilot areas or test buildings to assess new workplace designs, technologies, and behaviors. The third approach is when organizations decide not to change their workplaces nor to invest in pilot spaces. They prefer to wait until they get more data on the remote working experiences and the future role of the office. None of these approaches is necessarily better than the other, but it is our job as advisors to help our clients, organizations, and partners choose the right approach and not to make it all about cost reduction.

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GABOR: How can the insights from the Haworth Work from Anywhere Summit support your work? What were your key takeaways?

DÁVID: It is always inspiring to see how different related areas of the office industry see, experience, invest resources, shape, and develop trends. Regarding furniture companies, I am always excited to see their new ideas and inspiring concepts. These ideas make things easier to explain to a client when changing culture and introducing new methods. Because every new method is a new experience, and as an experience, it has touchpoints. The furniture, the physical spaces are all touchpoints that define the experience. I am particularly pleased that Haworth considers our work as a complex system, not just about furniture but system elements. It makes it easier to work together, as we speak the same language and work towards common goals.

GABOR: I am sure Colliers has a strategy to help your customers bring their employees back to the office. Could you please share with us the main pillars of this strategy?

DÁVID: Yes, you are right. The Colliers Workplace Advisory team works with many corporations to develop and implement post-pandemic workplace strategies.

Our 5B approach consists of 5 guiding pillars for workplace strategies: Bricks, Bytes, Brand, Behavior, and Business. We believe that these 5 pillars need to be consistently balanced. If not, the delicate system will fall over. But if we focus only on return, we have no universal solution. Nor does anyone. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Different companies make different choices based on their specific business goals, work patterns, and culture. 

The Colliers 5B Approach

Dávid and the Colliers Workplace Advisory team work with many corporations to develop and implement post-pandemic workplace strategies.

1.    Bricks
Physical space, environment, location, building, etc.

2.    Bytes
Technology, devices, tools, etc.

3.    Brand
What it wants to represent, not equal with corporate ID, logo, etc.

4.    Behavior
Culture, style, management method, rules, etc.

5.    Business
Internal process, business goals, cost, etc. 

Every business needs to return to the office in a way that satisfies both leaders and employees, who will collectively develop a new culture that matches the increased comfort needs. The other three pillars will smoothly adapt to this Behavior pillar. But until that can happen, new models need to be tested, and re-tested again and again. That is where we currently support most of our clients: by preparing test projects, measuring, iterating, thinking together, and learning from each other to develop solutions that everyone is comfortable with and believes in. 

GABOR: How will “collaborative zones” change in the future? Are there new functions/activities they need to support?

DÁVID: Let me start with practical advice: every organization, leader, and representative should define for themselves what collaboration means. Many people use the word “collaboration” and run blindly after good-looking office setups. Then, after spending thousands of euros, they discover their new office does not work for their culture, employees, or the ways they work—and the spaces go unused.

So first, define the function of the room and what you expect from it, how the new hybrid culture will develop, etc. Otherwise, these spaces will only be about good looks—not what you need. We are still learning what works too—right along with our customers.

We can, however, say that the large meeting rooms of the past will evolve into smaller, modular, agile spaces to ensure everyone can find the kind of space they have been creating at home during their remote work.

GABOR: How should digitalization support the evolving office?

DÁVID: The answer to this is simple: no digitalization means no remote work. Our local research showed that most industry players were digital before COVID or became digital a short time after the pandemic began. The public or associative sectors have not gone digital yet and continue to operate traditionally. I am confident, however, that within the segments where Haworth operates, digitalization is no longer an issue.  

GABOR: Let’s talk about an existing office which the customer wants to rearrange and improve with new applications. Do you agree that a smart space upgrade is more effective than a complete renovation?

DÁVID: It depends on what we call a smart upgrade. But I fully agree with the principle. New is not always better, and old is not always rubbish. We work on projects with companies such as RTL, where we put a lot of emphasis on keeping the test projects within some defined limit. But to do so, we need to be very specific about what we want to achieve. By deconstructing and rebuilding, what can I gain? What can I reuse?

In many cases, redesign is just self-serving design hubris, nothing more. There is no wise concept behind it. On the other hand, it is central to know that Budapest commercial real estate is a so-called turnkey market. It means that in the case of new leases, landlords contribute financially to renovations or complete refurbishments. And this is something that tenants like. That is why when an office lease expires—usually after 10 years—the company moves and builds a new one. And if they do not move, then a complete refurbishment is a condition for staying.

GABOR: What does “well-being” mean for the future office?

DÁVID: As I also work in an office, please allow me a personal and non-professional answer. I hope that we can live in a healthy, safe, and balanced way, inside and outside the office. And that can only happen if we place a strong emphasis on self-development, culture, healthy living, and sustainability. Well-being should not just be a certificate, or an ergonomic chair, or a stylish office. It should be much more, a conscious existence.

Final Thoughts

DÁVID: It has been a great experience to review the past months with so many areas of focus. And as a final thought, rock and roll is not just a dance, and the flex office is not just a number!

GABOR: It is always fascinating to know what you, as an industry player, think about the current market status and what your challenges are. I am sure that together we can find professional solutions to guide our customers on the right path. Let’s stay stronger together!
 

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