Will the office ever be the same?

Pop-up 'workplace of the future' hopes to entice people back downtown

Will the office ever be the same?

Pop-up shops are a great idea, giving retailers a chance to give consumers a quick look at their products and services, for a limited time.

They pop up quickly, dazzle for a month, then disappear, hoping to leave a positive impression behind them.

But will that work when it comes to the “workplace of the future”?

Steelcase and POI Business Interiors hope so. The furniture specialists have partnered to set up a display in downtown Toronto, looking to entice both employers and employees back to the office. 

Open until April 29, the WorkBetterLab is designed to help organizations understand workers’ changing needs and how to attract them back to the office in a post-pandemic world. 

But why do people need this kind of promotion? “The problem is, especially in Canada, people don’t like their workplaces,” says Stavroula Kontis, corporate marketing and communications manager at Steelcase.

And she’s right. Many offices have not changed for years, using the same tired formula of mid-height cubicle walls, inoffensive carpeting and tried-and-true lobbies. Yes, more adventurous landlords and employers have embraced the open concept, along with open brick, refurbished hardwood floors and kitchens complete with booze on Fridays.

But it’s hard to lure people out of their comfy homes after the pandemic when that involves a stressful commute, distractions at the office and a setup at work that is similar to the one at home. What’s the point?

Steelcase has some new numbers to back up their case: People who like working from their office say they are 33 per cent more engaged, 30 per cent more connected to the culture and nine per cent more productive. On top of that, they are 20 per cent less likely to leave, found its survey of 5,000 workers in 11 countries in late 2021.

That’s why employers have to focus on giving employees a welcoming environment where they can be more productive, says Kontis.

Recently I spoke with several experts about the whole idea of coworking, and the flexibility it provides. People can have their own office, they can have a dedicated desk or find a different one each day, or they can work in communal areas. And they don’t even have to come to work if they don’t want to.

But of course many businesses are hoping employees will flock back to the office towers and downtown workplaces to once again spend their hard-earned cash in restaurants and stores. Ottawa mayor Jim Watson, for example, is asking the federal government to get people back to work. He’s sent a message to Treasury Board President Mona Fortier citing the city’s high vaccination rates, making safety a low concern.

Montreal is hoping to entice workers back downtown with a new ad campaign. Launched by the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, the initiative uses slam poetry composed by a local artist to pay tribute to downtown’s “creative and innovative character.”

Commercial real estate companies have also tried to convey a promising return to the downtown core, though the numbers are still small compared to the pre-pandemic days.

It’s no easy task. Even I have to admit the return to the office may be somewhat disappointing. While the commute is bearable now that I’m embracing the GO train for a 10-minute ride after a 15-minute walk, the energy downtown is just not the same. There are far fewer people filling the sidewalks, many stores have closed, and the office lacks the buzz of energy it once had when everyone was there.

Things will improve, of that I’m sure, but we’ve got a long way to go before the office setup looks better than the homefront.

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