Experts at the University of NSW have taken a look at how the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to accelerate city shifts to a smart city future. 

The coronavirus pandemic is permanently reshaping the nature of how work is done in a number of ways. Organisations have had to contend with large swathes of their employees working from home, and it looks like this seismic shift will be permanent in many ways.  

“We need to reimagine how workplaces can look like and how they best serve work and add value,” Frederik Anseel, Associate Dean of Research and Professor of Management at UNSW Business School, said.  

Prof Anseel believes the workplace of the future will probably be more flexible with people jointly arranging with their employers when to work from home and when to go to the workplace. 

“Having people getting stuck in traffic for an hour to arrive at a workplace where they do exactly the same work as they could do at home but much more efficiently, needs to change,” Prof Anseel said.   

“This has been an eye-opener for a lot of companies, but also for managers who were suspicious that it couldn’t be done. It can and it should.”  

Associate Lecturer at UNSW Built Environment, Iva Durakovic, also points to the obvious benefit of hours saved each day on commuting and a shift towards hubs in which people come together. 

“If we can at least reduce the number of times that we need to go into the office, if not completely, it will free up productive time that we could [use] working without having that stress of the commute, [or] that we can get back for ourselves so that we have more of a work-life balance,” Ms Durakovic said.

What’s going to happen to office space? 

With large numbers of employees sent home to work over the past eight months, this has had a domino effect on a number of industries. One of the hardest hit has been commercial real estate.  

Employees are working from home while businesses are cost-cutting and analysing their office space utilisation. Businesses, the property sector and architects are all putting their heads together to figure out potential solutions to these challenges.  

“Large corporations and companies – they’re never going to let go of an office or headquarters completely – but they may need less space, and commercial real estate will need to be more flexible with that,” Ms Durakovic said.  

“We have already seen seismic shifts towards Space as a Service (SPaaS) models as a result of the gig economy with increased demands for lease flexibility and better alignment between workspace and contemporary ways of working. They’re now going to have to get even more creative with how they can multi-purpose certain areas of buildings, be more flexible in the leasing terms and costs to make that work for them financially.  

“Utilising technology and public-facing spaces to advantage and social good, building owners and organisations have an opportunity to amplify the experiences they can offer workers and the community more broadly, particularly outside of typical office hours.”

The rise of smart cities 

Governments around the world have championed the idea of smart cities, and the dramatic changes to the workforce brought about by organisational responses to COVID-19 are only likely to accelerate the shift to smart cities. 

Prof Anseel said he believes the workplace should become a place where people come to collaborate, share and exchange information, creatively solve problems, build a community and identity.   

“What I expect is that a new work philosophy will merge with ideas of smart cities. Companies will have smaller workspaces to meet all over the city, closer to peoples’ homes.

“This is the concept of the 15-minute city, where people do not need to commute for long times. This will be supported by small-scale workplaces where co-workers meet with each other as well as clients, suppliers and colleagues from other companies – all co-located in these work hubs. Work hubs will also be more embedded in community life, making it easier to flexibly switch from meeting someone, doing some concentrated work at home, go shopping and exercise and go out with friends or colleagues – all in the vicinity of one’s own house and workspace.”  

Ms Durakovic agrees, saying  “I think we’re going to get to a place where we’ve got sort of distributed hubs in neighbourhoods or communities, and a central place to come to that means people won’t have to do the exhausting commute every day. We will definitely still need a home base, a connection point to come to and see our colleagues, connect to our professional communities [and] a workplace can provide [that], but it might be a lot smaller. It might be very different in terms of its technology and purpose.”

Meaning and connection 

“The biggest threat to working from home at the moment is not deadlines or productivity,” Ms Durakovic said. 

“It’s the isolation and our mental health. Our recent findings indicate both mental and physical health decline as front of mind for employees with ‘isolation from colleagues’ and the quality of furniture ergonomics in their home working set up ranked as two of top three challenges.”  

Prof Anseel also underscores the fact that humans are social animals.  “We don’t thrive in isolation. Many people have struggled with maintaining good social relationships in quarantine and working from home. We quickly learned that a virtual social hour or virtual drinks are nothing like the real thing. A serendipitous encounter at the coffee corner can be the start of a new business collaboration.”

Prof Anseel said many people miss daily informal conversations with their team, the richness of real-life brainstorms and discussions is hard to replace. 

“So, the idea that we will never go back to the office is probably not warranted and we will need to find some compromise between these new ways of working. What works for one person, will not necessarily work for another person,” says Prof Anseel. 

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