Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Working from home: The future of business is remote

Back to the office in 2021? Here are ten things that will have changed

Predicting how companies will be using their office space in the coming year is challenging. ZDNet picked experts' best guesses.

What does the office of the future look like? Here are experts' top 10 guesses

For some, it will soon be a year since the last time they set foot in an office. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep through countries, it is sometimes hard to remember that days were once punctuated by a daily commute, water cooler chats and afterwork drinks. But although the timeline is still unclear, offices will inevitably re-open in the future – leaving many wondering what kind of a workspace they will be stepping into on the day that they get to dust off their office shoes. 

Analysis firm CCS Insights predicts that in 2022 more than half of all office-based employees will still work mainly remotely. Whether you are team WFH, or increasingly desperate to return to the comfort of an office desk, one thing is for certain: with half of the workforce at home, at least on a semi-permanent basis, workspaces will no longer be designed to accommodate floods of employees coming in every morning for another nine-to-five shift. 

SEE: COVID-19: A guide and checklist for restarting your business (TechRepublic Premium)

Of all the transformations that the past year has spurred, the spaces that we work in are among the most likely to be altered in the long term. In an attempt to get a snapshot of the office of the future, ZDNet has rounded up expert opinion. Here are their top ten predictions on the topic. 

1. The traditional office isn't going to disappear anytime soon 

News from Silicon Valley companies that employees will be able to work from home forever may spark concerns that the ghost-town business districts caused by the pandemic will become a permanent part of city life.  

This won't necessarily be the case, because not all workers will choose to stay remote – in fact, research shows that about half of them will actively want to come back to the office. "We will witness a 300% permanent increase in remote workers," says Andrew Hewitt, analyst at research firm Forrester. "In other words, one in five workers working remotely permanently." 

The majority of employees will still be coming into the office, even if not every day. Although there will be fewer people working on company premises at any given time, therefore, Hewitt believes that most organizations won't ditch their office space altogether. Instead, they will re-think their real estate investments to cut under-utilized space, and work on better designs to make sure that the remaining square meters are used efficiently.  

2. The immediate priority will be health and safety 

According to Forrester, the first priority when re-opening office buildings will be to create a sense of physical and psychological safety in the workplace. Despite the encouraging news of a vaccine, the firm found that two-thirds of US workers would like to have health precautions in place even after they go back to the office. 

Companies will, therefore, be modifying office layouts to maintain social distancing and taking extra measures for cleanliness and sanitation. There will also be more investment in new technologies like temperature scanning, predicts Forrester, to provide employees with both physical and psychological reassurance. 

3. Investment in voice assistant technology will rise to enable contactless operations 

In the last few years, voice assistant technologies have been snubbed by businesses, which couldn't find a suitable use case for them. For Angela Ashenden, principal analyst in workplace transformation at CCS Insights, this is about to change. "The need for safer, contact-free interaction with applications is driving renewed interest here," she tells ZDNet. 

Voice-enabled technology will be used to request services within the building in a more intuitive way, ranging from ordering a coffee to booking a room. Employees can also expect to find voice assistants in shared spaces such as meeting rooms, office lobby areas and elevators.  

4. Companies will equip employees with new tools to make better use of office space 

To make sure that office space is used efficiently, employers will provide digital tools that enable staff to visualize the availability of space in conference rooms, working desks or even parking spots. This might come in the form of a central repository where employees can access building information, for example.  

Stefanie Woodward, head of interior design at real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield, told ZDNet: "Inhabitants of these spaces will be able to get an upfront view of the actual occupation. Tenants within the building may be using their own booking apps for their staff to assist planning ahead, and maintaining safe working conditions." 

After switching to remote working by default, some companies, like digital identity firm Okta, have in fact already implemented tools to let their staff book a spot in the office via an app before they come in. 

5. The market for connected whiteboard devices will surge 

With half of the workforce at home and the remaining half in the office, visual collaboration tools that can unite distributed teams will be popping up all over the workplace. Among the pieces of hardware that will rise in popularity, CCS Insights identified connected whiteboards such as Google's Jamboard, Microsoft's Surface Hub and Samsung's Flip – which the firm expects to be joined by new and less expensive devices that will equally meet the needs of a hybrid workforce.  

Physical meeting rooms, therefore, will fill up with technology that bridges the gap between on-site and digital workers. "We expect to see a surge of investment in meeting room devices generally," says Ashenden, "but this goes beyond screens and cameras to tools that enable co-creation and innovation, like connected whiteboard devices." 

6. IoT technology will create offices that boost employee productivity 

To convince employees to use their workspace, companies will provide offices that go above and beyond working from home, according to chief executive of the British Council for Offices, Richard Kauntze. "In particular, I expect to see more offices use smart technology that adjusts the office environment throughout the day to aid employee productivity and wellbeing," he tells ZDNet. 

SEE: Digital transformation: The new rules for getting projects done

Booking a meeting room could trigger an increase in airflow based on the planned occupancy, for example; and smart LEDs could automatically adjust lighting based on the temperature, daylight levels or individual circadian rhythms. Armed with new data and insights, employers will be able to maximize employee experience, drive productivity, and attract workers back into office buildings. 

7. Businesses will re-purpose office space as on-site childcare and education facilities 

Finding appropriate childcare for working parents was difficult before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the health crisis has made the need for available facilities even starker. Research firm Gartner predicts that in the next two years larger organizations will have designated spaces in the office dedicated to caring for children who require supervision during the workday – leading to a 20% increase in employee retention. 

"In addition to retention and gender parity benefits, accessible, employer-provided childcare options will lead to greater employee engagement and productivity," Emily Rose McRae, director of future of work research at Gartner, tells ZDNet. Reports show that during a typical year, employers in the US lose an estimated $13 billion in potential earnings, productivity and revenue due to inadequate childcare resources. "We estimate that the productivity gained from the provision of on-site childcare will largely compensate for the fixed costs associated with establishing and maintaining care facilities," says McRae. 

The analyst predicts that the groundwork for this offering will start in the next six months to two years. 

8. Monitoring and tracking devices will proliferate in the workplace 

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With mental health now top-of-mind for many business leaders, tools that assess employee wellbeing will boom, according to CCS Insights, which predicts that features that track worker sentiment will appear in all collaboration and HR applications in the next year. 

"We could potentially see the use of AI technologies to monitor employee sentiment, for example through their written communications or even through their facial expressions," says Ashenden. Similarly, tools that track activity, such as time spent on calls, in meetings, or working after hours, could be deployed to workspaces, both remote and on-site.  

Monitors and trackers, however, are only a small step away from surveillance technology, and are likely to be met with resistance from some employees who are concerned with privacy. 

9. Robotic co-workers will become commonplace 

Automation has been on the rise for many years, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated the potential for machines to carry out human jobs – not only in factories, but increasingly in workplaces, too. For CCS Insights' vice president of forecasting Marina Koytcheva, more robots will be deployed to undertake tasks such as health monitoring and cleaning, housekeeping, food services and payments, especially in hard-hit industries such as hospitality. 

SEE: Technology's next big challenge: To be fairer to everyone

"These new roles extend beyond the uses for robots and automation in the home and delivery networks we predicted in 2019," says Koytcheva. As robots make an entrance into the office, Gartner even anticipates that HR departments will soon expand to include resources specifically dedicated to the automated workforce. By 2025, predicts Gartner, at least two of the top ten global retailers will have re-shuffled their HR departments to accommodate the needs of their new robotic workers. 

10. The 'out-of-the-office' office will be born 

One major change to the office will actually take place outside of the traditional workplace. Emma Swinnerton, head of flexible-leasing solutions at Cushman and Wakefield, anticipates the emergence of a "flexible workspace ecosystem" that balances working from the office, from home, and from a network of "third places". Those third places will be located nearer to employees' homes and provide an appropriate space for focused working, without the need to commute to city centers. 

For example, vacant high-street retail units could be re-purposed to accommodate the changing workforce distribution. "With people working more frequently from home, high street retail could see a new lease of life by becoming the 'third place' in the total workplace ecosystem, offering flexible areas to work close to where people live," says Swinnerton. 

Urban planners are already adapting their designs for out-of-the-office workspaces. Tom Venables, director at urban planning firm Prior+Partners, tells ZDNet that although city hubs will continue to be important for businesses, work is underway to transform suburban and residential areas into worker-friendly zones. 

"The answer lies in providing flexible commercial space as part of neighborhood centers, which could be office, workshop or light industrial," says Venables, "as well as places where computer-based workers can touch down, like pubs and coffee shops."