Work reimagined: The sustainable and inclusive workplace of the future

With sustainability, inclusiveness and employee experience as top priorities, there is now a huge opportunity to transform the way we work.

In Brief

  • With an increased drive toward sustainability, inclusiveness and employee experience, organizations need to repurpose the use of the physical workplace.
  • Most businesses will use the physical corporate space much more deliberately, and design it to be where employees, teams and leaders go to connect and collaborate., with most of the individual work being done remotely/at home.
  • Organizations will need to reimagine the physical workplace (bricks) at the same time as the workplace technology (bytes) and the ways of working (behaviors)

With the onset of the pandemic, many worldwide businesses and their employees made the swift transition to remote working, completely changing the way organizations operate and how employees engage. This has forced us to reimagine where, when and how we work. We now have a unique opportunity to combine leading practice solutions from pre-COVID-19, with lessons and insights from working mostly remotely/at home. What are the benefits that will accrue from having a hybrid work model? What are the challenges we need to solve? How can we reimagine the physical workplace to be more sustainable, inclusive, healthy and productive? In this article, the fourth in the Work Reimagined series, we delve deep into “bricks” or the physical workplace and look for answers to some of these questions.

The purpose of “workplace of the future”

The physical workplace as we know it plays a key role for many employees and clients as an integral part of their workplace experience. The future role of this space is now shifting from “the” place to work to a “network of spaces” that serve many purposes. Bricks is one of the three key Bs (bricks, bytes, behaviors) required to reimagine work, and refers to a network of spaces that supports all the different activities employees perform during a workday. Future employees will not be tied down to a single space. They will increasingly choose to work remotely to focus and concentrate individually. Trips to the office will be primarily to collaborate and connect informally face to face with colleagues. This shift in the purpose of corporate space is happening now and can help businesses improve sustainability, workplace and employee experience, inclusiveness, and cost and space efficiency, all at the same time.


EY teams recently hosted roundtables for 39 large organizations in the Nordics and found that none of them viewed the corporate space as the only place to work from in the future. Rather, as many as 45% saw the future corporate space as a “connector,” a place where you go only to connect and collaborate. Nine percent will only have space for employees to show up for learning and events. Eighteen percent will let their employees decide how to self-lead and use the many different spaces in a “network of spaces.” Businesses will also see new types of space emerging within corporate buildings, for example, broadcasting rooms, hybrid meeting rooms for multiple and single participants, and multi-company social hubs.

If the purpose of corporate space is changing, the facilities management services provided in buildings will also need to change. We foresee much more intensive use of the (remaining) space in the future, which will demand more service employees on-site during working hours, seamlessly circulating to perform the services needed. “Workplace guides” and “vibe-managers” will focus on the “look-listen-feel,” i.e., the workplace experience and support inclusive workplace behaviors. All services will be adjusted to support the new purpose of the workplace.


The new technology gap

New technology like sensors and apps are already being used to support finding colleagues, space and book services. However, there is still a huge gap in connecting many separate solutions with data from workplaces so workers can make more informed choices. Businesses need to develop the technology behind dynamic planning tools that will support, for example, arranging a meeting with short notice, considering where colleagues are at the moment, and where they prefer to be physically, and matching everything with available workplace resources.

The sustainable workplace

In many organizations, “bricks”’ is often the second or third largest cost category (competing with salaries and IT costs). If employees can work remotely over the long term, it will allow some organizations to make a significant reduction in the need for corporate real estate, even considering future increased social distancing.

The shift is further accelerated by the fact that office buildings are one of the key direct emission sources impacting the carbon footprint and other emissions for many companies. Decarbonization is identified as one of eight 2020 megatrends identified by EY that will shape the world now, next and beyond. To decrease the required office space and related carbon emissions only underlines the need for organizations to explore hybrid working models. Data and technology will be a huge driver in executing this.

According to our declaration of being carbon negative in 2021 and net zero in 2025, EY has reduced its real estate occupancy from 13.8m² per person to 7.6m² per person globally. By avoiding the use of 1.9m m² of space over the last decade, EY drove down its emissions to over 150k tCO2e, which translates to an annual energy use of 17,830 houses or 380 million miles driven by average passenger vehicles.

At the “Head of Workplace Roundtable” hosted by EY for 39 large organizations in the Nordics across varied sectors such as finance, automotive, pharmaceutical and utilities, nearly 90% said they would prioritize sustainability as “high” or “very high.” Organizations are likely to invest much more in resizing and redesigning their workplaces to support better hybrid working and improve workplace and people experiences. Organizations and EY teams are already starting initiatives like “power-positive and carbon-negative” buildings, urban farming, sustainable behaviors and CO2 tracking connected to individual behavior.

The inclusive workplace experience

During COVID-19, many workers experienced more inclusive meetings, with everyone being on the same platform and taking up the same virtual space. Many also experienced a more human touch to corporate life, getting glimpses of not before seen private life aspects. We can also see from Microsoft analytics data, that across organizations internal networks are becoming more siloed, and that the outer networks are shrinking. A surprisingly high ratio of employees does not have 1:1 time with their closest managers at all (Head of Workplace Roundtable). We see that the (male) leaders in general are thriving much better than the single (mom) and new employees (Microsoft research).

Most modern organizations are taking the diversity and inclusiveness agenda to the board level together with sustainability. The workplace inclusiveness agenda is not only about gender, it is also “just” about how majorities and minorities are interacting, to what degree they are allowed to appear at all, and how individuals are making sense of it all and feeling that it is OK to decide how to work for themselves or not.

Even before COVID-19, it was already challenging to participate in hybrid meetings, where the majority was often physically in a meeting room and a minority or maybe just one person was calling in and maybe not even visually present. There was the informal pre-meeting in the physical room without the remote minority being present at all. During the meeting, the remote minority had the challenge of getting a word in and following the oral conversation and body language in the room. After the meeting, the virtual minority did not participate in the informal physical after-meeting.

Some organizations, even before COVID-19, decided not to have hybrid meetings at all. This is not to suggest this be “the” solution for all organizations post-COVID-19. Rather it is a great example of how we recommend all organizations think through what desired work behaviors they would like to take place in their organization, and then design bricks and bytes in an integrated way to support them. If you then choose to allow for hybrid meetings for good reasons, you need to install hybrid meeting rooms, where the physical layout and workplace technology supports inclusiveness, and maybe consider hybrid meeting guidelines and moderator roles to support — so that everyone feels included, regardless of how and where they choose to work. Inclusiveness is unarguably the best path to pursue, and with evidence strongly suggesting that when employees feel included and have strong workplace networks, they are more innovative and productive (Microsoft research), the question left is “how” to make this happen.


A successful work reimagined approach requires new strategies, because the purpose of corporate space is changing, which in turn can help improve sustainability, people experience and cost efficiency all at once.

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