Gensler Costa Rica
Gensler Costa Rica
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Rethinking the Future of Work in Latin America

Editor's note: This post is part of our ongoing exploration of how design is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In reference to the rapid, worldwide shift to remote work, Saikat Chatterjee, Senior Consulting Director at Gartner, recently said: “We are being forced into the world’s largest work-from-home experiment and so far, it has not been easy for organizations to implement.” Although remote work was already present in some way at many companies, this change has been something completely new for many others.

Remote work (also known as flexible working or a distributed workforce) has been around for decades, as a measure for work/life balance, positive impact on the environment, business continuity, and workplace efficiency. But its implementation has encountered several barriers in Latin America, ranging from managers with the very paternalistic idea that teams are not able to work efficiently without their supervision, to the usual: “This may work well in the US or Europe, but not here.” But the arrival of COVID-19 is forcing change.

After months of sheltering in place, we have to acknowledge that this situation is not remote or flexible working as we knew it prior to the pandemic. This is an attempt to work remotely while under mandatory confinement, which presents different conditions and challenges: Families together longer times at home, overlap with virtual education, child and/or family care, and restrictions in public spaces and circulation. It’s a far cry from the original idea of flexibility and work/life balance.

For Latin America — our cities and our workforce — it has been particularly challenging. More than 50% of workers in the region are considered “informally” employed according to the International Labour Organization. Small residential units and a very young workforce (over 50% millenials according to our Gensler Latin America Workplace Survey) living with their parents, young children, or roommates make the situation even more difficult. Early results in Gensler’s Work From Home survey shows younger generations are having the hardest time dealing with the new situation. In the face of COVID-19, we are all in the same storm, but we don’t ride the same boat.

We have a great opportunity ahead to shape the future of work and workplace in our region, but there are several questions we should be thinking about as we plan our next steps.

Will we continue to work remotely in the future?

Our data suggests that over 50% of people expect to have increased opportunities to work from home when returning to the workplace. We’ve shown the skeptics that we can remain productive, therefore we should expect some increase on remote working on the long term. Along these lines, many companies have announced their plans to keep part of their employees working in a distributed way for longer. Or permanently.

Will we go back to the offices?

Of course, we will, but it won’t be the same. The impact of this moment will be significant. An increase in remote working suggest our workspaces will be used more for collaboration, innovation, and co-creation. This is not a new idea — it is the direction we were heading anyway!

Will workspaces be reduced in the future?

This is possible, but too early to tell. There are many factors in the equation to obtain the “necessary area”: employees with a greater expectation of flexibility, companies with a desire to maintain a distributed workforce, investment restrictions, an acceleration towards a workplace model more focused on collaboration and experience — all of these factors are being combined with the need for less density. The net result of the equation could be a reduction in the required area, but won’t be dramatic, and again — this trend was already in motion.

Will there be a new “density” as a consequence of social distancing?

In the short term: without a doubt. Modern offices featuring open space and bench-type systems were not designed to maintain a safe distance. At Gensler, we are working with tools that allow us to understand how to adapt to these measures. We have been reducing spaces for over 30 years, seeking to optimize the number of people we can fit in the space. Comparatively, we build fewer square meters of offices each year than we create new jobs. The immediate result of social distancing will be that the offices will house fewer people, therefore there will be more space per person… and this could be a good thing!

If we think about better quality of workspaces in the future, in offices less focused on the desk as the “base unit” and we focus on experience and collective activities, we may see a combination of fewer people and more space per person on the long term as well.

Will cubicles and closed offices return?

I usually answer this question with another question: is it a good strategy to solve current or future problems with solutions from the past? I hope and I think not. Temporary separation solutions may appear — the increase in the price of materials such as plexiglass is incredible — for greater safety and peace of mind but going back instead of moving forward is not necessarily a recommended strategy.

Will new types of office spaces appear?

Crisis = Opportunity. After we start the returning to the offices, we have several months of “coexistence” with COVID-19 ahead. With some people working remotely and others in the office, we will be able to start testing new solutions that will allow us to “reimagine” the workspaces of the future. It will be a very interesting period where we will find new ways of working.

Typically, the workspace “program” is calculated based on the number of desks, and based on the number of desks we calculate the number of meeting rooms, training rooms, open collaboration areas, cafeteria, etc. We could very well come up with a new concept of programming based on experience and activities instead.

What will happen to coworking spaces?

The coworking space model implies high density and shared positions and neither is acceptable in the present times, with the consequent damage to their business. Coworking’s great strength is flexibility, and it can become – in the short term – its great weakness: many companies, large and small, independent workers and entrepreneurs will seek to cut expenses, and flexible contracts will be at the top of the list. In the months before the pandemic, the huge demand for more flexible contracts fueled exponential growth in flexible spaces, creating anxiety in the “traditional” operators of the real estate industry. This will not change and in the long term we will continue the same path of seeking greater flexibility in leasing, and those who manage to survive until then can be greatly benefited.

Will the conditions of the real estate market change?

This one is the million-dollar question. Buildings are long-term assets in a short-term world. The conditions for leased corporate spaces are very similar to those of 50 years ago. Beyond the need to adapt to the demand for greater flexibility — which will continue to grow — the challenge for owners and developers of corporate buildings is enormous: In the mid-term a potential reduction in the demand for corporate spaces, and in the long term with the need to “reinvent” the lease conditions.

Additionally, the investment in the necessary improvements in the infrastructure of the buildings will be a reality sooner than later. The winners will be those who know how to adapt better, who offer more value compared to more square footage, and who ultimately become partners of their tenants.

We will meet our colleagues again. We will hug again and shake hands. We will return to collaborate, share our culture, innovate and create. But the winners of this situation will be those who can adapt and innovate — and innovation is a contact sport.

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