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For many, COVID-19 has radically changed the topography of a typical workday. Almost 4 in 10 people in Europe began working from home during the coronavirus epidemic, with the number increasing to half in countries like Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK. Although stay-at-home rules are now relaxing across much of Europe and the US, it’s unlikely that the workday is going to snap back to the way it was pre-pandemic. The corporate world is looking to a new future—one with a new commute, office space and schedule.

As fears remain about the use of mass transportation or even a return to car-congested streets, alternatives to public transit are being proposed. In New York City, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is reportedly considering a reservation system for subways and busses, which would require riders to book a seat to reduce crowding.

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Elsewhere, the use of bicycles is being lauded as a viable solution for getting to work safely. In the UK, government ministers have created an “active travel fund” of £250m to help convert city streets to be more cyclist-friendly. They are also giving away up to half a million £50 vouchers for bike repairs, all part of their larger £2bn plan to get more people walking and cycling to work going forward.

Sales are reflecting this bike-first behavior. Amsterdam-based VanMoof’s global electric bike sales rose 48% between the end of February and mid-March and bike sales doubled for Britain’s biggest cycling retailer, Halford’s. VanMoof’s cofounder, Taco Carlier, told Reuters, “people tend to stick to day to day behavioral routines and patterns, especially for mobility. They stay in their cars and keep using the subway. The shock value of corona has pushed people out of their normal routines into new habits.”

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Weston Williamson & Partners' working environment guide

Workspaces are also being reimagined. Designers and architects like Weston Williamson & Partners are rethinking how their offices are laid out to follow social distancing rules going forward. Their physical alterations to the work environment—such as screens between desks and one-way systems—are combined with new flexible working practices, like having up to half of employees working from home every day to keep the number of staff in-office down. The designs are based on their own office, but the firm hopes they will be used by many to retrofit other spaces around the world to be future-pandemic ready.

The American Institute of Architects is also hoping to provide guidance for the future reopening of office spaces with their Re-occupancy Assessment Tool, which helps businesses determine if their buildings are safe to return to and, if not, the ways they can improve.

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Facebook headquarters at Menlo Park
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Some companies are forgoing offices altogether. Silicon Valley kingpins like Facebook, Twitter and Square—whose expansive campuses gave employees little reason to go home and were a major perk for prospective hires—have recently announced plans for permanent remote work setups.

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“Office centricity is over,” Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke tweeted at the end of May when announcing that Shopify will be a “digital by default” company going forward. “Until recently, work happened in the office. We’ve always had some people remote, but they used the internet as a bridge to the office. This will reverse now. The future of the office is to act as an on-ramp to the same digital workplace that you can access from your #WFH setup.”

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Kinexon SafeZone

As it has throughout the pandemic, technology will continue to play a decisive role in the workplace of the future. At one of its factories in the US, Ford is trialling the use of Samsung smart watches which alert employees if they are too close to each other for an extended period of time. Kinexon, the Munich-based start-up which originally designed wearable tracking chips for elite athletes, is now pivoting to chips for factory and office workers which can help ensure safe distancing is maintained throughout the workday. Already being trialled in Switzerland, Germany and the US, the Kinexon’s SafeZone devices can also help managers with tracing past contact if a member of staff becomes infected with the virus to prevent further spreading.

Work schedules, too, are being rethought. The Prime Minister of New Zealand has suggested that the 4-day work week could be the way forward. The new workday will be about flexibility—going into the office when it’s necessary, not as a matter of course, with working hours shifting as daily schedules become less linear.

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The pandemic has shown business leaders and their employees that the old way of working is not fit for the future we now face. Economists like Australian Tim Harcourt are saying this is the biggest workforce shift since women began working en masse during WWII. As countries begin to relax restrictions and economies restart, workers will look to a brighter, more employee-focused future.

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