Rediscovering the physical workspace

Rediscovering the physical workspace Martin Moehrle EFMD

When taking stock of the large unplanned working from home experiment that the pandemic has forced us to engage in, one has to say that it worked much better than we all thought. Both, from a technology as well as a from productivity point of view. A lot has to do with the pandemic being caused by an ‘external enemy’, thus releasing lots of discretionary energy, much more than in top down-initiated change programs.

A small elite of leaders who have been used to managing global virtual teams were somehow prepared. Most frontline managers were not. And certainly not the millions of workers who had to create an ad hoc work environment at home, often competing with partners and children for space and bandwidth. Despite all of that, productivity did not suffer.

The prejudice of remote work being a hideaway from real work is overcome. Surprisingly fast, some top managers declared victory and working from home and virtual meetings as the future standard, thereby planning for tangible cost savings through reduced office space and travel. However, this is a short term-view only.

To imagine the post-pandemic way of working, long-term effects must be taken into consideration, notably on

  • social cohesion and a sense of belonging: the social aspects of work are limited when human interactions are purely of digital nature and only two of our five senses are activated. Communication is reduced to the immediate work environment, weaker relationships at the periphery are eroding. Especially new joiners have difficulties to develop trustful relationships, embrace purpose and culture, and express their selves.
  • inclusiveness and equality: the odds of working from home are not equally distributed, some commute much longer than others, and some are more productive in the office than at home. There must be optionality to work from either the office or home or any other place. This, however, must not have an impact on pay or career progression and requires monitoring.
  • serendipity and innovation: the more creativity and collaboration are drivers of value creation in an organization, the more the absence of unplanned encounters, be they in the elevator or at the cafeteria or the often-cited water cooler, will limit serendipity and idea generation at the periphery and intersection of businesses and functions.

Given such long-term considerations and the now increasingly visible remote working fatigue, there is general agreement that a hybrid model that combines office and remote work will become the new norm. Many organizations have updated their flexible work policies accordingly, to allow eligible employees working from home for a couple of days per week.

What is missing though is clarity on what best to do in the office and what kind of work to perform at home. Leaving this up to the individual or the team seems suboptimal. Professional service firms that have their associates work on the client’s site have established policies such as ‘Friday is office day’. Most probably, focused work with limited need for collaboration can perfectly be done from anywhere, provided there is easy access to relevant information and enough privacy.

However, to counter the a.m. long-term issues, organisations might want to establish collective routines for networking, sharing work and life experiences, appreciating the power of diverse opinions and professional identities within a community, and for knowledge sharing and learning, across units and across the enterprise, even including external parties and ecosystem partners. This might involve more townhalls, innovation days, design workshops, and social activities.

Corporate learning functions had to swiftly virtualise their learning offer a year ago, and online learning got a sensational boost during the pandemic. There is also agreement that the future of learning is blended, but how best to blend needs experimentation and a thoughtful redesign of learning portfolios and learning paths.

Office design that, in many cases, is still rooted in the industrial age needs to be revisited. Now is the opportunity to imagine and explore the workspace for the knowledge era, enabling collaboration and creativity. This calls for more flexibility and multi-purposing the space. Which again requires to digitally upgrade and connect spaces with each other. With the significant increase of remote work and digital learning, some organizations will have excess space, which they might sub-let and share with ecosystem partners or turn into co-working spaces.

The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation in all aspects of life. However, let us not forget to rediscover the physical workspace with intentionality on how best to use it in a transforming world of work.

The original article was published on LinkedIn by Martin Moehrle, Director, EFMD Corporate Services & CLIP.


  1. Martine van den poel on March 16, 2021 at 09:24

    Great article Martin !

  2. Mark A Thomas on March 17, 2021 at 12:14

    Cool article -very important points made about equality and social cohesion. I think as you indicate the message of “the great experiment” is that it for the most part it has worked and that people can be trusted. We need to get away from hierarchical dictates – “Friday is office day!” and let people make their own choices about what works best for them – as long as the work is done does it matter if my boss wants to see me in on a certain day? People will happily find their own ways of collaborating if allowed – we do it all the time. Successful offices environments will become more collaborative social hubs that involve other players outside the usual corporate confines.