Few could have predicted the fundamental workplace shakeup we’ve seen over the last two years.

There are people who wanted it, of course, but there wasn’t necessarily broad-based appetite from business leaders, nor the sense of urgency to act.

In the first instance, we saw the rise of what might be called digital workplaces — the standing up of a set of digital tools that could partially replicate the in-office experience from a remote location, which for most employees was their home.

Now, with higher vaccination rates and lower case numbers in many parts of the world, a return to office in some form is either underway or looking more likely. But when employees re-enter the office, it may look and feel very different to the one they left behind in early 2020.

Momentum is building towards the creation of smart workplaces — digitally-enabled offices that provide more personalized spaces and services geared to employees’ needs.

Your Workplace Environment Matters

There is some latent demand among employees for a return to a smarter office.

A survey of business leaders earlier this year found one in three staff still don’t have a dedicated workspace at home. “Try to visualize what this number represents for your business,” the survey suggests. “How is performance being affected if a third of your staff are trapped in an environment that doesn’t allow them to perform at their best?”

We’ve all been on web conferencing calls that reveal the cramped or less than ideal conditions that some of our co-workers are working in. I’ve seen this firsthand, where some people underestimated how long they would be working from home and kept putting off investing in a desk and other systems, or they simply lacked the space at home for such a setup.

For many of these people, the thought of a dedicated workspace opening up outside of home that is equipped with smart systems geared towards helping them be productive is likely an attractive prospect.

For others, smarter centralized workplaces may not have quite the same drawcard ability. If employees feel as — or more — productive at home, they may wish to stay there.

My inclination is that people will fall into three distinct camps when it comes to the attractiveness of smart workplaces — not for me, definitely need it, and then somewhere in the middle where I’ll take it when I need it or when it gets thrust on me.

And that could happen: how much rent an organization is paying for a very big CBD office may impact how mandatory a return to the office becomes.

Related Article: The Hybrid Office: Digital, Smart, Real

The Roadmap for a Return to the Office

Despite the rise of smart workplaces, there’s still disagreement among employers on what the return to office will look like — and indeed, whether it will be “smart” at all.

One study published by the Harvard Business Review suggests five options, ranging from a workplace that is no different to the one many people left in early 2020, to one that is a bit like a “clubhouse” that people treat like a social and collaborative hub.

The idea of returning to an office that is unchanged by the pandemic seems unlikely, however. Research by PWC found “less than one in five executives say they want to return to the office as it was pre-pandemic.”

Learning Opportunities

That’s a relief — ideally after what we have all been through, no one should harbor ambitions to go back to the way things were. Nostalgia is not a forward-thinking strategy.

Anecdotally speaking, while staff have been out of physical office spaces, change is afoot.

In many large organizations, workplace teams have taken the opportunity of largely empty offices to redesign and refit them with digital technologies that enable smarter ways of interacting with (and within) these spaces. Many of these smart workplace technologies are powered by mobility. They might include checking in and checking out of the building or floor and interactive floor plans to see which desks are available and sanitized for use.

The building systems themselves are also likely to be smarter — with better connectivity, higher quality airflow based on room and space utilization, and smart lighting among the noticeable enhancements.

What that means for staff is an entirely new experience of the workplace. Wherever you are in the office, it’s going to be geared towards you.

Related Article: The Future of Office Design After COVID

What Will the Office Look Like as Investment Returns?

I touched on the uncertainty of working life in the previous section.

That may weigh on smart workplace projects, at least in the short-term. As one survey notes, “the main obstacles facing businesses in reframing the role of the office this year include a continued leadership focus on mitigating the short-term challenges posed by the pandemic.”

The counter-argument is that as economies recover, businesses' finances are improving, putting them in a stronger position to invest.

Some had to put off investing in digital workplace and smart workplace technologies in the past two years because they couldn’t afford it. But as they start making money again, they’re also revisiting transformational workplace tools and practices that were shelved out of necessity.

I expect that to transition into some incredible digital and smart workplace case studies as we head into 2022.

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