SKG Inc. CEO Beth Goff-McMillan talks about the future of office spaces in the wake of COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the way we do work. Just a few months ago, many companies remained hesitant to embrace work-from-home policies, even if they had the infrastructure in place. Now as companies navigate their return to the workplace, office spaces will have to adjust to accommodate social distancing, expanded work-from-home policies, and new ways of social engagement.
This week, we sat down with Beth Goff-McMillan, CEO and owner of SKG, Inc. SKG is a furniture dealership based out of Austin, Texas that helps businesses transform their office design for greater workplace success. She told us about her vision for the future of work — in both the short and long term — and about how office spaces fit into that future.
More Than a Place to Work, Offices Empower Collaboration
Right now, the future of work is in flux. According to Beth Goff-McMillan, clients tend to have two, contrasting responses about the return to the workplace. While some clients are hoping to “come back 100%, just like before,” others have announced that they “are never going to return to the office.”
According to Goff-McMillan, many businesses will need to find the middle ground between abandoning office spaces and returning to pre-COVID practices. While many companies can run fully remotely, giving up the office environment underestimates the importance of socialization at work. As she puts it, “when we show up to a space — whether it’s a university, a healthcare facility, or an office — we show up to be with people. We show up to collaborate and to be a team. We engage with other human beings because that is who we are as a species.”
Without a physical space for people to be together, collaboration and culture-building becomes much harder. “At the heart of innovation is collaboration,” says Goff-McMillan, “If you’re not together ideating, how are you going to innovate?” Working in shared spaces enables businesses to experiment with new methods, and Goff-McMillan believes that businesses should strive to hold on to office space if they are looking to grow.
Transforming Workspaces in the Wake of COVID-19
Of course, creating a space that empowers collaboration while enforcing proper social distancing is no easy task. Perhaps surprisingly, Goff-McMillan warns against drastic change. “Unless you’re coming back with more than 50% of your workforce, I would caution against doing anything too radical,” she warns. “I’m a CEO, a workspace innovator, but I’m not doing anything to completely transform the space right now.”
In these early stages, Goff-McMillan proposes that business adapt rather than redesign. Instead of renovating their space, SKG is designing areas for individual work while rethinking the use of collaborative spaces as the company gradually rolls back its restrictions. As policies regarding COVID-19 continue to change, investing in major changes presents a significant financial risk. Even as lockdown eases, a second wave is possible along with renewed restrictions — including a return to mandatory remote work.
A Unique Opportunity for Innovation and Long-Term Change
While Goff-McMillan does not see this as a good time to carry out a serious office renovation, she is nevertheless excited about the opportunity for experimentation and innovation. “We are really seizing this opportunity to re-examine everything that we knew,” she says. “There are ideas we’ve been wanting to test for a long time but couldn’t because you can’t radically shift from the norm when business is booming — and it has been in Austin.” For Goff-McMillan, COVID-19 presented a unique opportunity: “We’ve been waiting for the market shift to really try some of these ideas, and the coronavirus has given us that chance.”
“We’re coming back, but we’re coming back in a very different way. So this is our time to test new theories,” she explains. One of those theories is switching to a free address office space — a space where no one has a designated area, and everyone picks a spot where they will work that day. While this removes the ability to personalize your workspace, it offers a number of advantages that are particularly beneficial in the wake of COVID-19.
In particular, without individual offices, free address office spaces enable you to create larger collaborative spaces. This is critical since new social distancing rules mean that fewer people will be able to work in conference rooms. Larger collaborative spaces can also help businesses return to their offices without risking the safety of their employees.
As SKG experiments with their office design, Goff-McMillan and her colleagues at SKG will continue to help businesses create spaces that promote productivity as well as safety. “We will bring the best to every scenario,” she reflects. “At the end of the day, collaboration — being together — drives us as a culture and as innovators.” While being together may never look quite the same, innovative thinking and design can ensure that fruitful, collaborative work continues even as offices evolve.