Hermetically-sealed high-rises with wall-to-wall cubicles will no longer be the norm. But how will the new wave of workplaces look, function and feel in a post-COVID landscape? 

Physical workspaces are not dead…but they are in limbo. If there’s anyone who can attest to the importance of the office—and can argue for its staying power—it’s architects and interior designers, the people who think about the manipulation of space, light, color, density and more for a living.

“The office won’t disappear, there’s just too much that it provides in the way of building and cultivating culture that doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” says Primo Orpilla, the principal and co-founder of Studio O+A, whose San Francisco-based design firm has designed genre-shifting workspaces for Facebook, Microsoft, Yelp, Uber, Nike, Slack, McDonald’s and more. But from better air quality to spatial needs, there’s tons of changes and challenges that remain an open question about future workspaces. One factor, however, is very clear-cut: “We’ll leave the requirement of fitting as many people into one space as possible behind,” declares Kristie Fultz, a senior interior designer at global design and architecture firm Gensler. “We need space to breathe, to move, to connect. We’ll put people and wellness first.” 

As companies are currently gaming out the best ways to reconfigure their workplaces to align with protocols and practices workers are certain to demand, we challenged Orpilla, Fultz and several other interior designers and architects to dream big about what’s new and next. Here’s what they predict:

Flexible, Modular, Nimble Office Spaces Will Become Industry Standards 

“The assumption is, ‘I need an office, I need a door, I need a wall’—and maybe you do, but probably you don’t,” says Michael Lehrer, the founder of Lehrer Architects in Los Angeles. As so many companies have successfully pivoted to remote work, the full embrace of a blended model where employees choose where they’ll work daily—between a headquarters, their home, a satellite office or somewhere else entirely—is likely here to stay. It’s a shift in thinking that is quickly changing the conversation about spatial needs and planning within a physical office space. “Our programming efforts used to begin with the organization; I believe that moving forward it needs to start with humans and their needs,” says Fultz. The likely result is that flexible, modular logic and building systems will offer a distinct advantage for companies as their physical needs evolve. 

The sheer number of desks available may be reduced in future office spaces, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a company’s headquarters will shrink. “The amount of time that someone spends at their office is very unlikely to always be at a traditional desk, it’ll be somewhere else, using a different piece of furniture,” says Robert Norwood, a principal and interior design leader at global architecture and design firm NBBJ. He imagines the need for larger collaborative workspaces becoming equally important, if not more, than the availability of individual stations. “The amount of space needed per person is changing dramatically, and it’s going up,” he says. “Before we were trying to put as many sardines in a can as the codes would allow, now it’s exactly the opposite. Even by so much as doubling the space.”

Tom Stringer, the founder and president of Tom Stringer Design Partners in Chicago, believes that regardless of whether future companies opt to increase or decrease their office footprint, a shift toward de-densification will drive decisions. “So many offices have focused on huge spaces for amenities with communal work desks where everyone has exactly 54-inches of work surface before you hit the next chair—and I think that’s history,” he says. “How about smaller amenity areas and larger work areas, where if I’m there for 8 hours, I don’t feel like I have to get a rapid test on the way home?” He also imagines future offices embracing the idea of ‘hoteling,’ where a normal schedule of showing up to the office daily flips to a check-in, check-out as needed system. “I think the office becomes a resource, not a destination,” he notes.  

Larger workspaces and residential style furnishings are the next step of the office evolution.

Fultz envisions workspaces designed with a greater degree of intention, rather than the popular open plan layout peppered with a few conference rooms. “There will be fewer hard walls and more furniture and drapery solutions for dividing and opening spaces, making the office flexible with needs that may change literally every day,” she predicts. “There will be spaces dedicated to production with ergonomics, acoustics and readily accessible restrooms and kitchens; high-tech rooms used to connect when parts of the team are remote and others are in the office; rooms free of monitors or screens, and tactile rooms where you can connect with others.”

Manifestations of Culture, Territoriality and Personalization Will Change

Right now many businesses have adopted a hybrid work model where employees work from home and from the office, while carefully distanced. This has driven the acceptance of a more distributed workforce across all sorts of different companies. It’s a paradigm shift Orpilla is betting will continue, and one that begs a future realignment in how a company’s culture is expressed. “Perhaps we maintain a more distributed workspace, and go to 100 percent unassigned, you-check-in workspaces,” he muses. “How do you make sure your culture and your values are maintained if your workers aren’t there all the time? The thing about an unassigned system is, it needs a lived-in feel. Culture develops after the office patinas, and if you have a ‘drop-in’ model, it’s hard to get that to take.”

That’s a big deal. Offices, at their best, should be places that energize employees. A too-well-scrubbed, super-sanitized white box-style environment isn’t likely to compel workers to return or support productive work. “If we strip away all the things that make offices joyful, that’s not a solution,” Orpilla says. “So yes, let’s have flexible spaces, yes let’s have bookable individual and collaborative workstations, but let’s also create some zones and areas that let the culture communicate itself.” 

Lehrer concurs. He’s deeply concerned about the psychological implications of territoriality. “You want to give opportunity for the marks of your existence, with photographs or books or a vase with flowers,” he says, imagining future-forward ways of personalization that won’t rely on set cubicles or desks. “Maybe we’ll each have a 15”x15” lucite, where my things are in mine, yours are in yours, and there’s a system to show them,” he suggests.

NBBJ has already deployed ideas around this concept, says Norwood. “We’ve had some clients in the past where groups were assigned to a ‘neighborhood’ within a free space, and there was a common location in the neighborhood for people to do their personalization,” he recalls. “Every desk was available to every person, so it was more of a group personalization. And it worked very well.” 

Think common white boards, shelves and pinnable or magnetized surfaces visible to and enjoyed by everyone in the room, dedicated spaces that workers are encouraged to customize. It’s an idea easily applicable to distancing and sanitation mandates. “Not only does it give a chance for groups to have their own culture expressed, it also offers a way for individual perspectives to be expressed,” Norwood says. “And the company noticed over time the pride groups were taking in theirs. It became competitive.” 

Wellness Will Be a Future Office Essential

It’s near-certainty that we’ll see a bump in better filtration systems and the deployment of touchless technology in the workplace. But office wellness initiatives won’t stop there. “The design features that will be in the greatest demand moving forward are the ones we have reacted to the best all along: Open space, fresh air, trees, grass, water and sky at our fingertips,” says Fultz. “We’ve already been incorporating private phone rooms, mothers’ rooms and sometimes even nap rooms, but these spaces lack the biophilic elements we need to truly recharge.”

A more seamless indoor-outdoor work experience will unquestionably be part of future offices, Norwood believes. “I think that buildings are going to be much more physically porous in the future,” he says. “We’ll be approaching commercial architecture from a different perspective: It’ll be less hermetically sealed and much more open to the outdoors. It’ll be not unlike Silicon Valley’s free food programs—the expectations will be to have the opportunity to work comfortably in many different postures, inside or out.”

Stringer thinks that a fundamental reclassification of appropriate places for doing work is already well underway. “Can that meeting, normally in a conference room, be facilitated in an open-air cafeteria or on a walk? Wouldn’t that be a pleasant way to have a meeting?” he muses. “Maybe the design points for offices don’t change as much as the whole idea of ‘where does the office occur?’ changes.”

Outdoor workspace is a growing draw for new talent. Terraces and planted walk paths will be a crucial amenity for employees looking to recharge in nature.

Regardless, access to fresh air and natural light won’t be bonus features, they’ll likely be standards. “One validation of the pandemic is the understanding that having moving air, coming from the outside, going through the inside and going out again, is a healthy thing that not only helps you not get sick, but actually makes you feel better,” says Lehrer. “That’s very simple and powerful.” It’s something his firm consistently incorporates already: Lehrer Architects’ own offices include two glass garage doors that open fully to an exterior garden, and one of its notable projects, the Katz Family Pavilion at Stephen Wise Temple, includes four openable glass garage walls. “Connectivity to the world adjacent is psychologically grounding,” he adds.

Orpilla approached a colleague in the health industry with experience working on hospitals in third world countries earlier this year for additional ideas to apply to corporate spaces. “There, they need to control potential infectious disease in their lobbies, because there’s Ebola and other really dangerous stuff—and there are no HEPA filters,” he says. “So they did ventilation, they did [UV-C sanitizing] lighting, they did signage to not touch things, very simple strategies designed to safeguard the people in the facility. And they did it for pennies.” 

He’s planning for the very real possibility of future pandemics, too. “The next time this happens, perhaps it’ll be as simple as, we have disinfecting lights in place, we have fresh air being pumped in, we have surfaces that are well-maintained and cleaned,” he notes. “We hope this doesn’t happen again, but if it does, it won’t take a company down.”

Synergistic Technology and Design Will Drive New Norms in Office Behavior 

From density monitors to virtual check-in systems, touch-free experiences to disinfecting UV lights, there’s been an uptick of interest in how technology can assist in keeping workplaces safer for the duration of the pandemic, and more sanitary, period. Fultz sees a new hybrid of apps and rituals changing the office experience, right as workers step through the door. “We need a new way to transition from the world into work,” she says. “I envision people walking into a beautiful, spacious, green space where we wash our hands, greet each other and put away our belongings. Maybe it is there that we check in with an app and let our coworkers know why we have come to the office that day.”

Orpilla believes that strong messaging devices—even those as ‘low-tech’ as a well-designed sign—are simple yet effective ways that will change workplace behaviors. (Studio O+A actually designed a smart set of these themselves, available via download from their carefully considered “Toolkit for the Times”.) “We should make signage less institutional, less like a warning label, and more of a part of everyday life,” he explains. 

Beyond that, he’s also hoping that we’re witnessing a larger shift in expectations where no one is penalized for choosing to stay at home or work remotely when they’re ill. “In the Western workforce, you get it done or you’re a loser and the culture calls you out; the U.S. has been miserable about this,” he notes. “Now we’re suddenly saying, ‘You’re going to get everyone sick. People could die. So please don’t come in.’” That’s a lesson that, no matter how our future workspaces eventually function, we should make certain we carry forward. But it’s hardly the only one. The paradigm-shifting office rethink that designers and architects—and to some extent, our entire workforce—is currently engaged in has made one thing crystal clear: Culture, comfort and wellness are integral to the in-office experience, even if we’re just waking up to the fact of it now. And they’re likely to become even more important in the future.

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