Posted: 14 Sep. 2021 12 min. read

Improve your physical workplace environment for the return to work

Redesign the post-COVID workplace around Moments That Matter

WfA Blog 5: Redesigning the physical workplace

The role of the physical workplace has dramatically changed. The global pandemic demonstrated that working remotely need not hamper productivity, while at the same time brought into focus the importance of physical encounters for effective collaboration, social cohesion, and binding with the company. Companies across the globe are now developing return-to-work strategies and timelines. In tandem should be a focus on how to improve physical workplace environments to support the new “Work From Anywhere” hybrid workforce ecosystem. The ways of work have changed, and our physical spaces must keep up.

The workplace today is no longer the place where the workers go to work, nor even where the worker is, as remote work is independent of a central physical place. The new workplace is where the work lives: the shared physical and digital environment used by organizations to enable the workforce with the right tool to get work done. However, practices and norms of the pre-pandemic physical workplace do not necessarily work as well in the Work From Anywhere one. As we adapt to a hybrid workforce ecosystem, the physical workplace must transition from a one-size-fits-all office space where all employees are expected to spend their week, to a broader set of spaces usable and inclusive for on-site, remote, and hybrid work. We must improve workplace environments not only to assure safety, of course, but also to provide a clear and unique value to employees and to the work they perform when on-site.

Surveys show that many employees DO want to go back to the office for connection and collaboration, but not full time and not in the same way they did prior to the pandemic. We believe that, over time, many companies will realize that their workforce is not returning to pre-pandemic levels of office occupancy and that if they adopted a more flexible workplace strategy, they could streamline the amount of space that they use.

As companies seek to improve workplace environments to help employees and teams emerge stronger, we have been guiding our clients to look beyond footprint and square footage and consider the following:

Design around moments that matter: the 5Cs

Identify and focus on the unique and specific “moments that matter” for your organization, your type of work, your teams, and your individual employees. Understand what motivates your employees to return to the office, and architect your physical environments to support that. Design for the motivations that employees have for coming back to work:

  • Collaboration: Many are feeling the strain of virtual-only collaboration. When and how are your employees using shared workspaces for teaming and are your physical spaces supporting that?
  • Community: Returning on-site provides an environment rich with opportunities for interaction, connection, and socialization that so many are seeking. How can your space best foster connection, interaction, socialization, and engagement?
  • Creativity: Remote work has challenged the spontaneous creativity discovered in hallway conversations and coffee breaks. When and how are your employees most creative and innovative? How can your physical spaces fuel both impromptu and intentional creative collaboration?
  • Coaching: Satisfied, engaged employees need strong connections and development opportunities with their manager, team members, and cross-functional networks. How can your physical space support mentoring and coaching as well as a connection?
  • Culture: Company culture was not put on hold when everyone left the physical office, but it did morph and change as employees' needs and preferences changed. How can your physical space better foster and support your evolving corporate culture?

The 5Cs are meant to represent the common motivations for employees to come to the office – not necessarily to work solo on a spreadsheet or spend the day on calls. What spaces do companies need to enable the 5Cs in the physical workplace? In blanket terms, the answer is often more open space, conference space, whiteboard, collaboration, and interaction space. Much of the traditional corporate workspace is still defined by perimeter offices with cubicles in the middle. Yet this is not an environment conducive to enabling the 5Cs and providing for the experiences that may likely motivate employees to come to the office.

But keep in mind there is no one physical workplace solution. The environment that will be best for each company and its workforce depends on work styles and how people work together or independently.

Design around worker archetypes

We have counseled our clients that, as they prepare to redesign their physical workspace or reduce their physical footprint, they need to first understand and group their workforce by certain places of work/ways of work archetypes. For example, consider grouping employees within archetypes such as:

  • Independents, who spend the majority of their time on individual tasks. With less need for face-to-face interaction with coworkers, independents have the flexibility to work in the office or remotely, enabled by technology tools.
  • Travelers, who spend the majority of their time outside the office (e.g., sales calls with customers, attending off-site meetings with clients). Their work is enabled by high levels of mobile technology and remote access.
  • Residents, who spend the majority of time in the office at a desk doing individual work. They typically must be available to other colleagues in person and/or require access to controlled information, storage, or special equipment.
  • Teamers, who spend the majority of their time collaborating formally and informally with coworkers in person in scheduled meetings or team working sessions. They spend very little time on individual tasks at a desk.

While in reality, many employees are a blend of these archetypes, this approach at least gives a starting point to understand how many people fit into each sample archetype and to define the space needs for each different archetype. An organization’s archetypes can be nuanced, or as general as “work from home,” “office-based,” or “hybrid.” Whatever approach a company takes to categorize the ways of work/place of work preferences of its employees, this crucial information can then drive floor plans, conference rooms, hoteling spaces, creative spaces, and more.

Deploy technology to understand how your physical space is really used

With new COVID variants potentially slowing planned returns to work, many business leaders simply do not have a clear sense of how many employees will be returning to the office, when and on what schedule.  Look toward available data and technology. For example:

  • Badge data: In an era where nobody really knows how many people are going to start showing up when the office is physically open, badge data will become increasingly important to understand the return to work trends and preferences of your employees. Several companies are using new badges with embedded RFID (radiofrequency identification) to learn how, when, and where employees (anonymized) move throughout the workspace – how much time in a conference room versus a cubicle versus a coffee break room. This anonymized data shows how employees are really using the physical workspace and can be incredibly valuable to real estate planning and footprint strategy.
  • Occupancy sensors: Technology exists to see when a chair or desk is being used, which provides valuable data to determine the real-life space needs of companies. Reducing excess seats and excess desks helps companies reduce costs by reducing their footprint.
  • Space reservation systems: A user-friendly system that lets employees book office space, conference room space, and collaboration space enables employees to take advantage of their time in the office when they go, and importantly, provides critical insights to employers on how and when spaces are being used.

Moving forward, this data can be the foundation for making strategic decisions about the landscape and footprint of the workplace.

Start now

The landscape of work has changed. Ways of working have changed. Worker preferences have changed. Culture has changed. And now our physical spaces must keep up. Based on the advances in work and collaboration that have been adopted during the pandemic, our view is that there are two types of occupiers: those that have realized they will need less office space and those that have not yet realized this reality.

This not only means less office space but smarter office space. Organizations should strive to create fluid, adaptive workplaces where employees and teams are more mobile, shifting as needed across different workplace environments – physical and virtual – based on the nature of the work, and where they and their teams are most productive. Do not wait until it is too late and miss out on the opportunity for a competitive advantage in the market. Without plans in place to redesign the workplace, implement new technology, and adjust real estate footprint, organizations will find themselves behind the curve.

If you have not yet evaluated your workforce and workplace and come up with a strategy for your physical workplace, now is the time – especially if you have not yet brought employees back into the office. After all, it will be much harder to make changes to spaces once they are occupied. And talented employees who are asked to return to spaces that do not meet their needs/expectations and that do not support their motivations for collaboration and connection may not occupy that space for long.


  • Darin Buelow, principal, Global Location Strategy Leader, Deloitte Consulting LLP

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Darin Buelow

Darin Buelow

Global Location Strategy Leader

Darin is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP and leader of Global Location Strategy. In more than 20 years of experience he has guided hundreds of major corporations with the deployment of talent, facilities, and equipment around the world. Darin is a frequent speaker and author on trends related to footprint optimization, location strategy, real estate, and economic development.