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Returning to Physical Proximity, One Step at a Time


Work colleagues chatting in office pantry
Image: tawanlubfah -
“Gone is the coffee bar….”
Among others, this statement jumped out at me as I read through the recently published McKinsey report on executive perceptions for the post-pandemic workplace.
McKinsey spoke of the disappearing coffee bar in context of the redesigned workspace and changing roles that a move back into the office will require. More fully, McKinsey wrote: “Workers specializing in things like ventilation and elevator operations will become more important, as will custodians and caterers. Gone is the coffee bar, replaced perhaps by a station where temperatures are taken.”
What a shame, if this does come to pass. The coffee bar, the corner café, the huddle space, the lounges with comfy couches… such accoutrerments makes an office not just someplace to get work done, but a place that made chance conversations and on-the-fly collaboration a real possibility. While office re-occupancy strategies will need to account for health and safety mechanisms such as the above-mentioned station for checking temperatures, hopefully, this won’t be to the detriment of the spaces meant to allow people to connect with one another throughout the workday.
Another way to think about such workspace decisions is short-term de-densification vs. long-term re-densification. Melissa Marsh, founder and executive director of PLASTARC, a social research, workplace innovation, and real estate strategy firm, touched on this idea in the latest in our ongoing series of WorkSpace Connect conversations. When asked, many knowledge workers indicate that a top reason they want to go back into the office is to connect with colleagues in person. Even though workplace strategists must plan for social distancing in the short term, she said, they can’t overlook people’s desire to come together in close physical proximity when strategizing about the long-term future.
That said, future work environments that support physical proximity may look like something we haven’t seen before, Marsh added. For example, what we might see is more of a blending of physical proximity with digital connectivity, she suggested.
Think about this in terms of, say, the office pantry. A short-term, gut reaction to re-occupancy planning might have a company eliminating the office pantry, especially if these spaces are on the small side and social distancing would be difficult to maintain. Employees can always bring in their own coffee and snacks, right?
But outright eliminating that space doesn’t serve the connectivity requirements that people desire, so why not keep the pantry set up for the longer term and in the meanwhile add a video display to the wall — essentially turning it into another place to collaborate, even with others in the same office. “We’ve got greater connectivity, or co-presence, by the way technology is coming into our office,” Marsh said.
This sort of thinking could prove quite beneficial given the evolving attitudes about work from home and return to the office. Turning back to that McKinsey report, findings confirm that “some employers intend to increase the number of their employees working remotely at least some of the time [compared to pre-pandemic], although at far lower levels than seen during lockdowns and quarantines.” Fifteen percent of executives surveyed said that at least 10% of their employees could work remotely two or more days a week going forward, McKinsey reported. Extending WFH options beyond two days a week, however, wasn’t too popular among respondents. Only 7% said at least one-tenth of their employees could work three or more days a week remotely, McKinsey wrote.
Offices will begin to fill up again, one day or the next. As Marsh said, “It’s really a matter of the timeline more than the end-stage.”