Trends that shape the workplace in 2021

In the summer of 2020, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson prophesised a return to normality ‘in time for Christmas’. Employers, he said, should encourage people to get back to work by August, assuming the creation of COVID-secure workplaces.

Fast forward a few months into Christmas, and we’re up against a fresh slew of lockdowns around the world, curfews, shut borders and the subsequent suspension of events, activities, and travel corridors — in retrospect Johnson’s plan reads equal parts naïveté and misguided optimism.

But this does not discount that both employers and employees are eyeing a return to the office. For many, their work-life balance has been nudged off-kilter with the collapse of nine-to-five routines. Daily commutes, vacations and the hundred other little rituals that segregated work lives from private ones have yielded to an unhealthy 24-7 work culture and an overextended, burnt-out workforce — we’ve even come to recognise ‘Zoom fatigue’.

The COVID-19 pandemic does not — as some had first suggested — spell the death of the office. Rather, a host of post-pandemic workplace trends will take root in 2021, trends better aligned with the growing need for employee safety and wellbeing, and the unprecedented explosion of digital tools.


The ‘death of the office’ argument is too binary, too either-or. But between lockdowns we’ve seen the rise of flexible working models, with employees going into the office on certain days of the week, at certain times, in staggered clusters. This hybrid approach, which allows employees autonomy over where they work and when, will continue into 2021. The World Economic Forum (WEF) predicts the subsequent emergence of ‘a dispersed, digitally-enabled, liquid workforce’ by 2025.


The slide into an anywhere-anytime model will not displace but rather will fortify the need for a physical workspace. A global WEF survey reported that 74% of 2,000 employees surveyed are still pro-office, saying it is more conducive to team cohesion. A physical workspace is also the answer to several systemic issues — from the asymmetry of access to technology and connectivity to the tyranny of endless video calls. This year, the traditional office will graduate into a meeting ground for a scattered workforce.


Knight Frank’s Re-occupancy and Re-imagined Workplace Survey found 53% of businesses wanted their offices to feature more space for collaboration in 2021. 63% anticipate a greater focus on the design and specifications of their offices, saying it will play a crucial part in inspiring collective creativity and innovation. This year, businesses won’t just want basic desk space, but rather spaces that perpetuate collaboration.


Start-ups, small businesses, and the like are not the only ones that will gravitate towards serviced and co-working spaces and short-term rolling leases. Larger enterprises are likely to maintain a headquarters alongside investing in smaller satellite offices and purpose-driven, flexible workspaces. This core-and-flex approach will create a fluid real estate portfolio across businesses.


Last year introduced us to the ‘six-feet office’, and in this aspect the workplace of 2021 will mirror that of 2020. Low-density layouts that support social distancing, contactless technology, frequent and meticulous cleaning regimes, increased ventilation, hand sanitiser stations and safety signage will continue to be norms. Offices will also need to support dynamic occupancy, a pivot away from the pre-pandemic open-plan layout but optimal for employees rotating in and out of the office.


All told, the stress and anxiety of the last year has been tremendous. According to a Willis Towers Watson survey, more than two-thirds of employers believe the pandemic has had a serious impact on employee wellbeing and now consider mental health services and resilience management one of their top priorities. Companies such as Deloitte have even demonstrated a five-to-one return on investing in employee wellbeing programmes. In the face of sustained strain, employee wellness will become crucial to doing business.

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