The future of workplace: 5 key trends for positive changes

The current Covid-19 pandemic has forced millions to abandon their places of work and adapt to working from home, for better or worse.

Six months after the outbreak, many of us are still working from home. What was expected to be a short-term break from the office continues, with no guarantee that this will change in the near future.

At Buro Happold, we do not believe this is the “death of the office”; however, there has been an unprecedented change in the working dynamic, accelerating already incubated trends of healthy buildings, agile working and resilience. We have all been disrupted, and as we find the “new norm” of the workplace and we must prepare to be disrupted and be disruptors in the future too.

As we have seen throughout this pandemic, technology can play a significant role in our resilience to disruption. We should capitalise on this disruption to drive positive change. Namely, to enrich an employee’s workplace experience, to create healthy work environments, and to enhance an employee’s productivity, all whilst having minimal impact on our planet.

Microsoft’s new Headquarters in Munich
Microsoft German Headquarters, Munich, Germany.
The building re-imagines office functionality putting flexibility and technology at its core.
Image: Bodo Mertoglu.

This article introduces the trends affecting the workplace and how they are influencing clients in the adoption of operating technology. Across many sectors we are seeing significant annual growth of workplace technology. This supports several key macro trends, many of which are replicable at building or organisational scales:

  • On-demand services offering new revenue streams
  • A demand for agile digital infrastructure to support a rapidly changing technology landscape
  • End users demanding more digital services that support health and wellbeing and agile working practices 
  • A requirement to be more transparent in showing progress towards corporate KPIs
  • The road to zero carbon agenda forcing operational estate and building efficiency.

1.    An Agile Workforce

People are social animals, so we need human interaction. Covid-19 and the largest working from home (WFH) experiment in the world has taught us that we can be functional and get things done. However, it is hard for teams to be creative virtually. We need to be in the company of others and we need to be able to speak, interrupt each other, write things on walls, and have that spark that can only be found in the physical company of others. And then go for lunch together to build a relationship.

Whilst many large corporations have recently announced their move to a permeant WFH policy, that does not mean they are abandoning their office. It means they are giving their staff options. When staff are given the option to WFH whenever they want, and chose the space in which they work to the best of their ability, it makes us happier. This flexibility and choice builds trust, loyalty, attracts the best talent, and ultimately sustains a more effective workforce.  

82% of the UK workforce say they want to continue to work from home, at least weekly, when the pandemic is over. And 25-30% want to work from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.

Kate Lister, President of Global Workplace Analytics, 2020.

These trends will shift our demands on office space from being the engine of functional output to hubs of collaboration, incubators of ideas, and places where we strengthen relationships.

2.    Enriching User Experiences

The counterbalance of agile workforce is the need for organisations to bring people together to collaborate, share ideas, problem solve and work better together. 

A smart building is a building which entices employees back into the office by focusing on their needs. Workplaces that are harmonised with building systems, workplace technology and business processes.

As employees, our expectations of the workplace are shifting. The world around the office is immersed in technology rich experiences, and the office will need to respond by offering facilities and concierge services which bridge this gap of expectation.

According to Forbes magazine in 2019, the expectations of employees are:

  • Permanent flexibility
  • Commitment to health and wellbeing
  • To be enabled to work with purpose.

25-35 year olds say they are willing to take a pay cut for a better office.

‘Millennial professionals on the move’ study, Forbes, 2019.

77% of office workers revealed booking a meeting room is the most frustrating aspect of working in an office.

‘Meeting Management’ survey, Redstone Plc, 2018.

3.    Health, Wellbeing and Productivity

Health and wellbeing are top of the agenda right now, bringing new attitudes to healthy buildings which will likely stay with us post Covid-19. Monitoring more parameters relating to indoor air quality, enhanced ventilation, UV filtration and transparency of the environment (in which we spend most of our time) is highly relevant to the future of the office and our ability to build resilience to pandemics.

This is a positive change driving an increased sense of wellbeing, health and productivity of employees within a business.

However, the new norm is uncertain. What is certain, is that we will continue to work in a world which moves fast, is full of noise and disruption. Employees value workplaces which can accommodate different modes of work, from necessitating private and quiet concentration, to facilitating interactive and collaborative environments.

The workplace and the ergonomics of working in the physical and the digital environment are the key influences on productivity. The workplace of the future will need to be highly enticing, highly adaptive and highly tuned to users’ needs. This type of internal environment underpins performance and ultimately generates wealth for an organisation.

3 Wellington Place, Buro Happold’s Leeds Office, UK.
Integral to the design approach is the absence of walls/floors/barriers to enable collaborative working. 
Image: Buro Happold.

4.    Operating Efficiency: Energy and Management

Operating efficiency has always been a high agenda item for real estate owners and managers. However, with increased financial uncertainty post Covid-19, many corporates are looking more closely at the bottom-line cost to operate buildings.

This should not just focus on energy. Although highly important to the climate agenda, the operational cost in staff resource and materials (both financial and carbon) used to maintain the building assets is also vital to achieve these outcomes.


At present, there are major challenges for energy management. Post Covid-19, industry guidance is now recommending large increases of fresh air and a reduction of air recirculation. This new guidance is counter-intuitive with numerous energy efficiency measures which are already responsible for a large percentage of carbon emissions, spending and emitting more when buildings are only partially occupied.

Adaptive energy controls are key. In the broad portfolio of buildings, we have examined, simply fine tuning an automated systems’ control settings will help our Covid-19 response, and often reap bigger savings at a much lower return on investment (ROI) than retrofitting new, more efficient components in that system.

With modern building management systems, huge volumes of data are being generated, but this data is typically spread across siloed systems and in numerous formats. Efforts which connect buildings and their sub-systems to a common analytics or diagnostics platforms can offer an extremely favourable return on investment.

Operational management

A managed diagnostics platform can achieve a 5-15% reduction in energy cost for new buildings, or 10-40% reduction for existing buildings, with ROI in the first 12-24 months. Evidence towards FM benefits are less easily quantified, but growing evidence shows this can achieve a 10-25% reduction in HVAC maintenance costs, 5-15% in occupant complaints, as well as value in greater operational intelligence.

According to the EU Community Research and Development Information Service (CORDIS), maintenance costs far exceed the construction costs of a building throughout its lifecycle. A smart building approach will digitalise not just the operational maintenance but provide crucial validation of the installed devices during commissioning. Diagnostic validation of the commissioning process and predictive maintenance in replacement of the traditional reactive approach will become the norm for its ability to avoid significant cost outlay in a building operational phase.

Integration is no longer a costly pursuit. Open protocols, open APIs, new data management techniques, and open architecture are lowering costs and fuelling an integrated approach. This new era of ‘connected’ intelligence leveraged through intuitive interfaces means a seamless interaction between building systems, workplace technology and business processes. Efficiency gains are for all buildings users not just those in FM.

The adoption of technology to support greater operational efficiencies in its holistic form will result in energy conservation and decrease the demands for operation management and user processes. And that is not just in terms of immediate returns, but also in building resilience.

The ultimate goal for technology is that buildings will self-manage, learn, anticipate, adapt and enhance; with the digital fingerprint of building users being an integral part of that feedback loop.

5.  Resilience, Adaptation and Transparency

For office real estate, failing to change with the world has always meant falling behind. The world is changing faster than anyone expected and businesses need to be more flexible than ever.

Office real estate will need to respond to already incubated but now accelerating trends and become highly adaptable in their layout to address a dynamic use pattern. Workplaces need to respond to the changing nature of work, the changing demands of individuals, and the changing world.

Arguably, post-pandemic, pre-global recession, and amidst the climate emergency, it is a better way for business to operate and remain resilient.

ResilienceTo external future influences such as pandemics, social, political, climate, cyber security, data privacy and national infrastructure changes.
AdaptationTo future needs – in space layouts, buildings systems, workplace technology and business processes to suit all stakeholders needs including end user’s needs.
TransparencyData driven evidence reporting from building users, process feedbacks and the supply chain is needed for corporate boards to enable more effective decision making and transparency.

Businesses which are creating agile and resilient innovation plans will be better positioned to meet new needs and build new capabilities faster than ever before. We need bold innovation to get through Covid-19, and we will still need bold innovation when it passes.

Covid-19 has put a lens to many of trends that have been around for some time; healthy buildings, agile working, operational efficiency, and resilience. And that is a positive acceleration and much needed change.

The Tower at PNC Plaza, Pittsburgh, USA.
We used the latest green technology and passive design techniques for this commercial office building.
Image: Connie Zhou.

As Covid-19 passes and its shadow lingers, we must prepare to be disrupted again, this time by the looming economic recession, and then again by climate change. With each disruption there is potentially an increasing impact, unless we build resilience. There are many challenges that building users, tenants, operators and owners will face.

History has taught us that our ability to face these challenges often relies on our ability to adopt new or mature technology in new ways that support workplace needs. A continuum of adaptation is needed, and technology will be a fundamental piece of our resilience.

We firmly believe the office is not dead, but it is changing. At Buro Happold, we are ready to meet the challenge with excitement at what positive change this can bring.


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