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In times of remote work, the future of offices will lie on flexibility

Plans and updates at the offices of WeWork, Volvo, Cubo Itaú and Co-Work Latam shed a light on workspaces changes in the post-pandemic

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If remote work was already gaining ground in light of the discussions and future trends, the Covid-19 pandemic propelled this process to a whole new level, even in regions such as Latin America, where the mass adoption of this model tends to be more irregular. 

While big techs such as Google and Facebook, which extended their home office to June and July next year, respectively, and which also revealed that they should turn remote work into a permanent option for most of their employees, the future of offices seems to lie on a hybrid model, in which flexibility is the new keyword.

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WeWork understands that flexibility has become an even more important value with regard to workspaces, whether in terms of face-to-face work, in the setups of offices or in the geographic distribution of companies, so that they are not tied to just one building and employees can work closer to their homes,” points out Lucas Mendes, general manager at WeWork Brazil, in an interview with LABS.

For the executive, the post-pandemic world will bring permanent changes in the way companies interact with workspaces. But this doesn’t mean that a working from home model threatens the coworking giant.

“We see here a great potential for meeting large companies’ demands (which now represent more than half of our clients) – in the same way that we have already been working for companies that, even before forced isolation, already had more flexible labor policies.” Some of these policies adopted by WeWork clients included, in addition to the home-office, the option for employees to work from non-fixed workstations, such as more than one office, says Lucas. 

“WeWork is a global company, with 828 units and more than 100 in China alone. As a result, we were able to use much of what we learned from the way our local teams dealt with the pandemic,” says Lucas Mendes, general manager at WeWork Brazil. In August, the company reached 30 units in operation in the country, with the opening of WeWork Rio Claro 241, in São Paulo – WeWork’s new headquarters in Brazil. From March to July, the co-working firm had already started operations in six other buildings. Photo: WeWork/ Courtesy.

The possibilities in the industrial sector, according to Volvo

Changes in the workspace are not exclusive to the new economy sectors or to the so-called shared economy. “As part of Volvo group here in Brazil, we have been practicing flexible working mainly for administrative [employees] for many years,” Carlos Ogliari, HR and Corporate Affairs VP at Volvo tells LABS. “Of course, it doesn’t compare to the intensity of what’s currently going on, but employees already had the possibility to work at home or anywhere remotely during a partial period of their daily journey, or even all day.”

“When these hygiene habits become part of our routine, not daily, but our permanent routine, I think we will keep this concern. This way of working in industrial environments is not only practiced in the administrative area. People will be more concerned with this, inside factories, supermarkets, restaurants. We will all be a little more aware of these issues and protect ourselves more,” remarks Carlos Ogliari, HR & Corporate Affairs VP at Volvo. Photo: Volvo/ Courtesy

Since March, Sweden-based Volvo has placed its employees from administrative areas on a remote work regime. The challenge, as expected, came mainly from the industrial departments. “From an office point of view, it is much easier to do [remote work], when you look at the industry side, the challenge is far greater,” he ponders.

“But right away, due to the privilege of being a global organization, we quickly gathered what we had regarding best practices in factories worldwide and managed to develop a very robust health protocol in relation to protecting people who would need to come to the company’s facilities to fulfill their role, notably in the manufacturing, industry and assembly areas.”

READ ALSO: Remote work is setting new home setups in Brazil

Photo: Volvo/ Courtesy

In the post-pandemic era, we hear a lot about automation, flexibility, connectivity, so many things related to technology but we cannot forget about an important aspect: humanization. How do people want and like to work, that is the point. 

Carlos Ogliari, HR & Corporate Affairs VP at Volvo

“We will have to seek a balance between the flexibility to work from anywhere, it can be at home, as it can also be in the collective, shared work environment. I earn engagement when I see other people engaged in the work environment,” Ogliari adds.

If, on the one hand, not only the home-office, but also the non-fixed offices or flexible working hours are under the spotlight, on the other, work spaces whose nature makes it difficult to perform activities remotely, obviously will not disappear. 

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“Some companies will build work experiences that include mixed virtual workspace, options for employees to work from home, or remotely part-time a week. For some industries, the office might become a place to socialize, to interact, where work experiences are curated so that employees can develop social bonds through a shared experience which for human teams is important and it increases productivity and engagement when working remotely”, explains Jennifer Magnolfi Astill, founder and principal investigator at Programmable Habitats, a consulting R&D practice specializing in the strategic development of high-tech future work environments.

“For other companies, that might not be as necessary, they might need the workspace for something very specific, that has to do with the work. Think of any company that has to deal with large equipment, like servers or robotics, that necessarily will have to be in a work facility, just because those facilities are designed specifically for interacting with those kinds of machines,” adds the researcher. Jennifer served as advisor in headquarters workspace initiatives for companies in the likes of Google, Microsoft, PepsiCo and BBC.

READ ALSO: Home office is set to keep growing after the pandemic

Productivity and corporate culture: the plans of Cubo Itaú, and WeWork in Brazil

But if the workspaces of sectors that require specific facilities won’t necessarily face major changes – which spaces, effectively, will? 

“The pandemic has caused us to experience work without the variable of the office,” says the expert. “Many workers, many companies, have begun to ask themselves what aspects of this work context – let’s call it the bundle of the office – do we really need. What things can we do without? If you really realized that your productivity during this experience was not greatly affected, then you inevitably begin to question  what do we need the physical environment for?”

Photo: Kelsey Fain/ Courtesy

 In the past, we took the entire office for granted, we took for granted that a company and a business would simply have an office. Now that’s not necessarily an axiom, we have proven it doesn’t have to be that way. But there are many important reasons why an office is necessary or it might be required.

Jennifer Magnolfi Astill, founder at Programmable Habitats

The analogy used by Jennifer when she evokes the concept of “office package”, sees the workspace as a purchase or an offering similar to going to a conference. “If you think of the office as a product, it works as a “bundle” the same way as a conference is a bundle – it’s both a product and the delivery method. You purchase the ticket to go to a conference, but when you access that space, there are breakup sessions, there are dinner parties, there are receptions, informal interviews… So different types of customers of that conference will be interested in different things, they may not necessarily attend the entire conference program all that time. In a similar way the office is the same,” she explains, noting that the office experience is also made up of several layers.

READ ALSO: Innovation and digitization offer the only ways to emerge strongly from the crisis

If these layers used to go unnoticed, now they tend to play a central role –evidenced by the pandemic – in what we are going to define as the future of workspaces. “Our physical office is one of our assets to deliver our mission, which is to foster tech entrepreneurship in Brazil,” says Pedro Prates, co-head of the largest entrepreneurship hub in Latin America, Cubo Itaú, founded in 2015 by Itaú, Brazil’s biggest private bank, in partnership venture capital firm Redpoint eventures.

After nearly five months, Cubo reopened its headquarters, a modern building located in Vila Olímpia, São Paulo. But resuming activities in the physical space was not the only update: the hub created a new membership model for its beneficiary startups, expanding digital operations. 

If Cubo used to split startups between physical and digital, depending on their use of the space coworking facility, in the new model, those startups admitted in the hub’s selection process that choose to join the service will now have access to the connections managed by the hub, as well as events, internal programs and business challenges for potential customers. To have access to the physical space, the startup can purchase different bundles: one or more seats, private rooms, even daily, to be used by its employees according to their needs.

With the reopening on August 3, the building will operate in the first months with only 400 work positions – 30% of the original capacity – distributed between traditional seats and private rooms. In-person events and the reception of guests remain suspended to reduce the chances of crowding. Photo: Cubo Itaú/ Courtesy

“We are going to test products based on the building’s vocational usage”. Pedro explains that if, on the one hand, Cubo strategy is to increasingly uncouple its value proposition from the physical space; on the other, the building’s diverse facilities now serve a range of needs.

“If the startup chooses not to use the building at any time, assuming that will work remotely for good, but every 3 months, wants to do a face-to-face meeting, in which you strengthen the culture, renegotiate the metrics of success for the next quarter,” he exemplifies. “Plannings every two weeks, sprint meetings. Or: I want the CEO and the commercial team to be at Cubo because it gives us visibility, or I want to use the building for events.”

Photo: Cubo Itaú/ Courtesy.

This period of rupture forced companies to seek this knowledge [digital transformation] for now, and what everyone is understanding is something that for us has been clear for a long time: digital transformation is a priority for all companies.

Pedro Prates, co-head of the innovation hub Cubo Itaú

If space is no longer a limiting factor for work organization in these companies, it, in turn, becomes a point of connection. “Our teams, who have spent a lot of time working remotely, have accumulated some learning – mainly on the distance performance of one of our core activities, which is precisely community and engagement building.” says Lucas Mendes, from WeWork.

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“The teams surprised us in creativity, organizing a series of events, creating new communication channels and implementing online activities in different formats – and the feedback from members has been very positive. We are convinced that nothing can replace the contact and interactions that take place in our offices, which have already yielded many partnerships and businesses.” 

According to the company, the Enterprise segment (companies with more than 500 employees) represented more than 50% of WeWork’s revenue globally for the first time in the second quarter of 2020. Sales in the segment tripled in the last three years, from 13,000 positions in the first quarter of 2017, to 39,000 positions in the same period of this year.

“We recently launched” WeWork All Access”, a benefit that gives members free access to all WeWork units,” says WeWork’s general manager in Brazil, Lucas Mendes (photo). “Our goal is to meet the growing need of our member companies and their employees for flexibility – in this case offering the possibility to use several options of safe workspaces closer to their homes or where it is more convenient, helping to avoid time on traffic or on public transport. Photo: WeWork/ Courtesy.

Companies will certainly be looking at the workspace to fulfill those functions that are simply optimized when they happen in the physical environment. Two of these functions are obvious to me: the first one is team decision making, high-level executive decision making, that requires machine assistance; as well as ongoing learning and reskilling. 

Jennifer Magnolfi Astill, founder at Programmable Habitats

From Silicon Valley models to coworking: what is at stake for the future workstations

Productivity, culture, collaboration, learning. There are many elements that are part of the concept of work – and that, traditionally – have been associated with their physical spaces. But if these spaces are being reconsidered, pushed by the adoption of models such as remote work, tangible changes in the architecture of offices will arrive at a slower pace.

“In the field of tech, most modern offices today have, in one way or another, been inspired by the successful technology workspaces of the last 30 years, which generally come from Silicon Valley’s examples,” Jennifer elaborates. “These environments originally were not designed for social distancing, in fact they were designed for exactly the opposite. Collisions, encounters, collaboration, for getting people together. Introducing the variable of social distancing is simply incompatible, inconsistent with how these environments were designed.”

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For the expert, modifications that offices have been adopting to comply with social distancing and safety guidelines are likely temporary solutions. With time, firms will learn what works from what doesn’t.

From a building perspective, so much change is happening. It will take a little bit longer for this change to begin to show up in buildings, but it certainly will, we have no choice. It’s a point of no return. 

Jennifer Magnolfi Astill, founder at Programmable Habitats

“Speaking of the sector more broadly, in the short term, we understand that companies should look for alternatives with more flexible terms and more options to distribute employees among several locations, instead of having only one specific location,” points out WeWork’s Lucas Mendes, adding that this might be an opportunity for his company.

Sebastián O’Ryan, CEO of Latin American coworking firm Co-Work LatAm, also shares the same logic. The firm has about 30 spaces distributed in Santiago (Chile), Colombia, Uruguay and Miami (USA).

“In the medium and long term, companies will question themselves several times before making large investments in offices and signing very long-term contracts, the option of flexible offices should become an alternative for all companies,” defends the executive. “Added to this is the possibility of providing work teams with a hybrid solution that allows the flexibility they need for their lifestyle and a physical space to promote culture, creativity and innovation.”

Photo: Co-Work Latam/ Courtesy 

“In the first days of August, the requests multiplied by five compared to the first days of May, even exceeding the pre-Covid months. This is because today companies that want to switch to a hybrid model between remote work and offices are added to the equation,” reports O’Ryan. He says the company expects to resume growth in 2021, forecasting more than 15 openings between Chile, Colombia and the United States. “We hope to reach 150 locations (140,000 m² in 4 years,” reveals the CEO of Co-Work LatAm.