Group working wearing masks in modern office

Our workplace ecosystem will be ever-evolving, expert says

Adaptable spaces that prioritize safety will be the norm as employers prepare their offices for the return of the workforce

Group working wearing masks in modern officeFuture offices will have flexible features such as furniture on wheels, movable partitions and rooms that can be repurposed (Getty Images/ neumann und rodtmann)

With workplaces beginning to open again, the question on many employers’ minds is: What will the office look like in order to keep employees safe and productive?

The answer is not a simple one, as things are evolving so quickly, says Nabil Sabet, group director with M Moser Associates Ltd., office design specialists in Vancouver, and a speaker at CPA Canada’s The ONE Conference + Expo 2021. “We have to create environments that allow people to feel comfortable, secure and supported. They also have to be responsive to changes by taking on different shapes and forms, as well as be able to scale to accommodate different groups.” 


Over the longer term, Sabet expects to see lots of flexible features, such as furniture and walls on wheels, movable partitions, rooms that can be repurposed, “and a lot of audio-visual equipment that bring more functionality to all sorts of different spaces.”

Technology will be integral to combining in-person and remote workers, he adds. “There will be the added challenge of having meetings and collaborating where part of the team is not physically present. How do we democratize the workspace and make sure that voices are not reduced and are able to be heard as if they were all in the room?”

Sabet likens the concept to a “permanent beta workspace” that is easily adaptable as the pandemic situation evolves. “Employers will need to create individual spaces to allow people to focus while still allowing them to feel connected, in order to bring out the best behaviour of individuals and the best outcomes for teams,” he says.

“We believe that our workplace ecosystem will be ever evolving, and design needs to prioritize flexibility and adaptability,” agrees Linda Blair, chief experience officer, Deloitte Canada in Toronto. “Spaces need to be ‘hackable’ by users to support the task at hand, the size of the group and remote participants. Private offices will no longer be designed for a single use occupant; rather these types of rooms will be equipped for teams with collaborative furniture and technology.”

Floor plans and workstation have been adapted to ensure those re-entering the workplace can remain two metres apart at all times, she adds. “We are also leveraging digital collaboration tools, hybrid facilitation skills and prioritizing when we need to be in-person or not,” says Blair.


The transition will not happen overnight though. “We expect decisions around when and where to work will be guided by providing our people with flexibility, using client and business needs as a guiding principle,” says Helena Pagano, EVP, chief human resources and communications officer for Sun Life.

“We’re still in this pandemic even though restrictions are coming down, so office capacity is limited,” says Louise Lutgens managing director, talent and innovation and strategic investments, KPMG Canada. “Because we won’t be using the space at 100 per cent capacity, we decided let’s work with the space we have today. We have to live and experience how we need to use it, while continuing to survey our people to see what’s missing and how we can adapt.”

KPMG offices in major centres will operate on the hotel model, in which employees will require clearance and need to check in to assigned seating at available workstations when they arrive. “In smaller locations, we will work with the standalone spaces we have since we don’t anticipate any more than 50 per cent capacity for the coming months,” she says. 

KPMG’s most recent employee survey in fact showed that 55 per cent of employees expressed a desire to come into the office between one and three days a week. Ten per cent wanted to return full time and the balance wanted to come in occasionally. 

To support their employees’ return, KPMG has launched the Workforce Safeguarding App, where users can book a workspace and fill out a personal risk assessment questionnaire. “Because we are limited by the capacity in our offices, they need to ask for clearance to come and provide a reason why. On the day, they also have to report the state of their health,” explains Lutgens.


A top priority for businesses operating in a hybrid world is seamless integration between physical and remote work environments.

“The expectation of the office is no longer ‘where is my desk,” says Blair. “The workplace ecosystem needs to support equitable experiences that bring people together—remote or in person—through seamless collaboration. Design solutions that prioritize human and social experiences will become a priority. We will see the recalibration of traditional focus space to more flexible collaboration space and reimagined amenities. Smart technology, wellness and sustainability in the office will be a baseline requirement to support working in a healthy and safe environment.”

The pandemic has taught one additional lesson that will guide design in future: creating workspaces that can adapt to any contingency, says Sabet. “We all need to work towards something that is fluid and adaptable whatever the interruption might be, pandemic or otherwise. That’s the takeaway from this whole thing.”


Catch Nabil Sabet at the Re-imagining the workplace of the future panel session, which is part of CPA Canada’s The ONE Conference + Expo 2021 this September.

Plus, get ideas for how to make the most of your home workspace and how to prepare mentally if you’re going back to the office.