Experts: What office work will be like after COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the way we work in offices. But which changes are temporary and which are here to stay? We have asked three experts who each highlight different trends.    

Read the interview with Hans Westlund, Eva Bjerrum and Maria Svensson Wiklander.

The corona pandemic has turned our lives upside down, including our working lives. While most knowledge workers used to spend all their working days in an office, it is now the norm to have several WFH days each week.

But which changes in our working lives are temporary – and which are going to last? We put this question to three experts:

  • Hans Westlund, Professor in Urban and Regional Studies at KTH, Sweden’s largest technical university
  • Eva Bjerrum, organisation analyst at the Alexandra Institute in Denmark and an expert in new ways of working
  • Maria Svensson Wiklander, co-founder of The Remote Lab

Here are their takes on how office work will change in the future:

Hans Westlund: Work and leisure meet

There is no doubt that employees have acquired a taste for working from home, says Hans Westlund. 

“During the pandemic, we’ve seen people move to their holiday homes to work in order to be able to enjoy the great outdoors at the same time. It might attract new residents to outlying areas, but on the other hand, people still need to be fairly close to the large cities if they need to be able to commute in two or three times a week,” says Hans Westlund. He predicts that it will primarily be well-educated city-dwellers who are tempted by this lifestyle.

Hans Westlund also foresees an increase in shared office spaces in the provinces, which will appeal to knowledge workers who are keen to turn their backs on high property prices in the cities in favour of living closer to nature.  However, Hans Westlund also finds that employers are not as wholeheartedly enthusiastic about the new flexible working lives:

“Small and medium-sized companies are particularly keen to return to how things were before the COVID-19 pandemic, while large companies better understand that they have to accept the change and the fact that future employees will expect greater flexibility,” he says.

Eva Bjerrum: Activity-based office design to the fore

Even though office workers are starting to work from home once or several times a week, the physical office still plays a role. This is the view of Eva Bjerrum, an expert in new forms of working at the Danish Alexandra Institute:

“Even before the pandemic, many workplaces had started implementing activity-based office layouts or open office landscapes for greater flexibility. The pandemic has just accelerated that trend,” she says. She encourages companies to use the pandemic as an opportunity for experimenting with their office design on a small scale – for example in order to accommodate the emerging yet considerable need for small meeting rooms for online meetings:

“For example, you can have more open areas which are optimised in terms of their design and acoustics so that more employees can hold online meetings simultaneously,” says Eva Bjerrum, who also mentions small soundproof boxes, lounge environments or libraries as new additions for the office environments of the future.

“What’s really interesting is how companies will create a ‘reason to go’ for employees. Working form home is a serious competitor to the classic workplace, and I’ve even heard some people say that they only go into work for the good lunches which are served. That’s not a tenable situation, and we risk ending up with workplaces which are half empty – and half dead,” she says.

Maria Svensson Wiklander: All go with WFH

For Maria Svensson Wiklander, co-founder of the company The Remote Lab, what is interesting is not the number of WFH days. Maria Svensson Wiklander lives on a farm close to mountains and the countryside in northern Sweden, and through her work as a digital entrepreneur is used to working remotely on a regular basis.

In 2020, her work culminated with the establishment of Gomorron Östersund, an office community for remote workers with three different addresses in northern Sweden. The same year, her company The Remote Lab, which collects and disseminates knowledge about remote working, became much busier almost overnight when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. 

“Since the start of the pandemic, we have published five reports because we want to inspire by providing knowledge and research about remote working.  A report that we published in October 2020 showed that only 4 per cent of the respondents in the survey wanted to go back to working full-time at the office,” she says.

Maria Svensson Wiklander is finding that many workplaces have implemented a hybrid model, where the employees’ working lives are divided between going into the office and WFH as a way of meeting their desire for greater flexibility. However, it is not something that happens by itself, she says:

“I think you need to distinguish between where you work, and what sort of work you do. If you want employees to spend some time in the office and some time working remotely, then you still need to look at the way the organisation is working in order to avoid creating an A and a B team, which is otherwise a risk,” she says.

“You have to create a remote-first or digital-first culture, and not rely too much on physical meetings as not everybody will probably be in the office simultaneously,” she says, while mentioning the fact that large international companies are already looking globally for new talent:

“The geographical location is no longer that important. Companies can be established anywhere, which is borne out by the way that large companies are recruiting. It is irrelevant to them where you are,” she says.

What is the Alexandra Institute?

  • The Alexandra Institute is located in Aarhus and is both a consultancy and a research unit.
  • The institute helps public and private companies with advanced, efficient, secure and innovative IT solutions.
  • The institute was established in 1999.