The office of the future
TIT OFFICE was a place people went to because they had to. Meetings were held in conference rooms and in person. Offices took up most of the space. The kingdom of Dilbert and David Brent is now threatened. The pandemic has exposed the office to remote work competition and raised a host of questions about how it should be designed going forward.
Start by knowing what the office is for. In the past, it was a place where employees could do their jobs in whatever form. However, other conceptions of his role are jostling to attract attention. Some think the office is the new offsite. Its goal is to bring people together in person so they can do the things remote working makes more difficult: forge deeper relationships or collaborate in real time on specific projects. Others speak of the office as a destination, a place that should make the idea of getting up earlier attractive, in order to mingle with people who may have covid-19.
In other words, a layout largely devoted to people working in tight desks alongside the same colleagues every day looks very 2019. With fewer people entering and more emphasis on collaboration, fewer desks will be allocated to individuals. . Instead, there will be more shared areas, or “quarters,” where members of a team can flexibly work together. (More hot-desking will also require storage space for personal items: lockers might come back into your life soon.)
One tactic to bridge the gaps between teams is to set aside more desk space to showcase the work of each department, so people who never meet on Zoom can see examples of what their colleagues are doing. Another option is to get everyone to drink. Expect more space to be set aside for socializing and events. Bars in offices are apparently going to be a thing. Robin Klehr Avia of Gensler, an architectural firm, says she sees a lot of requests for places, like large auditoriums, where a company’s clients can have “experiences.”
The designs of the post-covid office must also allow for hybrid work. Meetings need to work for virtual participants as well as in-person contributors – cameras, screens, and microphones will proliferate. Gensler’s New York office has mini-meeting rooms with a monitor and a half-table protruding from the wall below, with seating for four or five people facing the screen, not one. against others.
Variety will be another theme. People can plan to work in groups in the morning, but need to focus on something in the afternoon. Ryan Anderson of Herman Miller, a furniture company, compares the difference between the office before and after the pandemic to that between a hotel and a home. The hotels are largely devoted to rooms for individuals. “The house has been considered a place for a family for years, hosting many different activities.”
All of this implies a need for flexibility. Laptop docking stations are simple additions, but other office furniture is harder to overhaul. The desks themselves tend to be attached to the floor with bundles of cables and knotted plugs. The office of the future may well have desks on wheels, which should go well with all that excess alcohol. Meeting rooms are also likely to be more flexible, with walls that lift and slide.
While socialization and flexibility are two of the post-pandemic office themes, a third is data. Ownership and TIME managers will also want more data in order to understand how facilities are used, and the days and times people congregate in the office. Workers will demand more data on health risks: the quality of ventilation in meeting rooms, for example, or appropriate contact tracing if a colleague tests positive for the latest variant of covid-19.
And data will flow more abundantly in response: sensors in offices and lighting, but also office reservation tools and visitor management applications. The question of who owns the data on office occupants and what consent mechanisms are needed to collect this information is about to become more urgent.
Put it all together and what do you get? If you are optimistic, the office of the future will be a spacious and collaborative environment that will be worth the trip. If you are pessimistic, it will be a building full of heavily guarded drunks. In reality, pragmatic considerations – how much time is left on the lease, the physical constraints of a building layout, the uncertainty over the pandemic’s trajectory – will determine the pace of change. Whatever happens, the office will not be what it used to be.
For a more in-depth analysis of the biggest stories in economics, business and markets, sign up for Money Talks, our weekly newsletter.
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the title “The office of the future”