Now that the Covid-19 pandemic has totally transformed the way we do many things, has the time has come to rethink our offices to take social distancing into account? Sabine Bourrut-Lacouture Executive Vice-president, Commercial property, France at Bouygues Immobilier, and Stéphane Bensimon, Chairman of Wojo, the 50-50 joint venture between Accor and Bouygues Immobilier, share their ideas.
Sabine Bourrut-Lacouture Lépine, Stéphane Bensimon
About 5.1 million employees teleworked during the first lockdown, and it would appear a huge increase in teleworking is on the way. How will this impact the way we work?
Sabine Bourrut-Lacouture Lépine
I don’t know whether teleworking will become commonplace, but what is certain is that it works. All of France was on lockdown, and telecommunications networks held up. All the video conferencing systems functioned well, and their use highlighted a few things that don’t make sense. Why, for example, spend two hours in your car or in public transport to get to a meeting when the meeting can be held via your laptop?
Businesses, employees, and in particular managers now realize that it’s possible to telework. We have also discovered the limitations of teleworking. There are real socialization issues. Also, family and home settings are not always well suited to it. But for the first time we have crossed a threshold in combining work and domestic environments. I think an American sociologist’s choice of words is right: we have gone from “work from office” to “work from home,” and we are now on the way to “work from anywhere.”
How is the crisis going to influence office design?
Taking health criteria into account in designing work environments is something entirely new. It will of course be necessary to take this aspect of workspaces very seriously. We have doubts, though, about the French government’s post-lockdown guidelines (updated on 29 October 2020), which recommend allowing four square meters of space per employee. That would require tripling office floor areas.
S. B.-L. L.
That’s true, if all workers continued to come to the office all the time.
That’s inconceivable, and we have let our reservations be known . Rather than that, I think companies are going to seek to use their office space more efficiently. Not more, not less, but better. The Covid-19 crisis is raising fundamental questions about the work environment and the role it plays for workers.
S. B.-L. L.
This crisis must not lead to exclusive reliance on teleworking and the disappearance of offices. A company is not just a bunch of individuals teleworking behind their computers. A company has values, an identity, a culture. Covid-19 has amplified trends that we were seeing already such as optimized use of space, environmental standards, and concern for employees’ health and well-being. At Bouygues Immobilier, we were already thinking about these issues. They are central features of our new commercial property offering embodied by our EDA project in Paris.
Will social distancing spell the end of open-plan spaces and a return to partitioned offices?
S. B.-L. L.
I don’t believe open-plan offices are going to disappear. Instead, spaces will be more personalized. We are going to focus more on interior spaces and create different kinds of environments, some very quiet and suitable for concentration and thinking, and some more animated and conducive to discussion and interaction. I believe people are social animals. When I go to the office, it is to be energized by talking and working with other people.
We are already doing this at Wojo by increasing the different kinds of spaces at our sites. We know that needs vary throughout the day. Sometimes one needs to concentrate and think without distractions. At our Wojo sites, there are quiet areas where one can be alone and even take a nap, and more lively ones where co-workers can get together and talk. We are even going to put Wojo spaces in outside locations like Accor hotels.
How should workspaces be redesigned?
Precautions must be taken of course in areas where people congregate. But the crisis has undoubtedly led to a much greater awareness of the usefulness of common spaces. They need to be transformed into invigorating spaces that promote intellectual enrichment, interaction, and discovery. Creating a lively atmosphere is very important. Without it, it’s complicated to give value to a corporate headquarters. Once the situation improves, such spaces will be in great demand, and I think more space will be allocated for collective use.
S. B.-L. L.
Yes. Common areas should facilitate the sharing of cultures and collective intelligence. Outside spaces and green spaces need to be developed to encourage interaction among employees and contribute to their well-being. At Bouygues Immobilier, we think a portion of these spaces should also be open to local residents to maximize their use and contribute positively to neighbourhood life. That’s what we have done with our Sways building in Issy-les-Moulineaux.
What role can a company’s buildings play in encouraging the return of employees to their offices?
S. B.-L. L.
The office and the home should not be put in opposition to each other. Instead, a balance should be sought in combining the home, a third place, and the office, while preserving the company’s identity. And the office should provide something different from the virtual world and digital tools.
It is a scientifically proven fact in neurology that three weeks of behaving in a new way is enough to create a habit. After several months of lockdown, changes are inevitable. A year ago, we did a study of the criteria for self-fulfilment at the office. Although most people mentioned a good balance between their professional and personal lives or recognition of their work, Wojo employees placed emphasis on personal improvement. It’s fairly remarkable to observe the extent to which one’s environment and interaction with others change one’s perception of work. It is now possible to imagine that going to work will offer an “emotional” experience. That is why Wojo exists.
S. B.-L. L.
Good work can only be produced in a good workspace. It’s important to remember that exceptional performance is impossible if one is unhappy, and that’s true in all professions.