The form and function of the office is always in flux. Driven by several factors, including productivity, comfort, health, economics and aesthetics, offices are always a reflection of larger trends among workforces and corporate management. After all, the goal of the office is to bring people together in a comfortable way that promotes productivity. Long gone are the days where offices were just stale boxes to house employees. Companies today understand the need to create environments that attract and retain the best talent for their firms.
Just a few years ago, the primary discussions in office design centered around creating the best open office environments that encourage collaboration among employees. Then, in 2020, a major disrupter occurred: the COVID-19 pandemic.
“All the data prior to the pandemic showed a steady increase in workplace flexibility, re- mote and hybrid-remote work over the past 50 years,” explains Kaleem Clarkson, COO of Blend Me Inc., a consulting firm focused on improving the remote employee experience. “Remote work in the U.S. prior to the pandemic was roughly 5 percent of the workforce, and during the pandemic it rose to nearly 50 percent of the workforce. Many policies, tools and resources were quickly implemented.”
Even though some of these trends were already percolating, when COVID arrived companies quite literally had to shift their processes and protocols overnight to enable employees to work from home. Entirely new networks and systems came into being, and ways of doing business changed. With those changes also came a shift in employee expectations and needs that took hold during the height of the pandemic and are still a force today.
It’s clear that things aren’t going back to the way they were before COVID, and the nature of the office is once again up for discussion.
“COVID accelerated workplace trends that were already in motion,” says Sarah Bay, director of Interior Design with three/cura interiors. “Many of these originated with technological developments that allowed for greater flexibility in the way we work. Others emerged from the paradigmatic shifts related to younger generations entering the workforce and bringing new ideas, as well as updated priorities regarding work-life balance and preferences for where and how they work. The pandemic encouraged reflection and consideration about the value of spaces we inhabit and our desire to spend time in more comfortable, supportive environments.”
This idea is shared by Byron Morton, vice president and co-head of Leasing at THE MART in Chicago, the world’s largest commercial building and host to NeoCon, an annual convention for the commercial interiors industry. “What has really come to the forefront is how design can reinforce and support the importance of the office as a place for teams to gather and collaborate,” Morton says.
“Work from home has made many of our clients rethink their needs and the amount of space they require,” explains Andy Holub, vice president and director of preconstruction and special services with Clune Construction. “We now have more uncertainty about who will be in the office each day. This has shifted the planning to more flexible seating arrangements with an open environment over the traditional concept of the perimeter office with fixed seating. The office is now more of a place to ‘touch down’ and have periodic in-person collaboration than it is a place to come and work each day.”
“I think COVID had the power to create a real revolution in the workplace and necessitate a more human-centric approach that is now the norm,” says Melissa Hanley, AIA, co-founder and principal of Blitz, a multidisciplinary architecture firm. (View Blitz’s office design work, which is retrofit‘s January-February 2023 “Cover Story”.) “One size does not fit all. Employers need to offer employees more choices in terms of how, when and where they work. They also need to provide employees with the right tools and the right environment to allow this flexibility. Task-based hybrid work gives people the ability to work wherever they are most productive for any given task. It’s about em- powering the employee to do their best work in the way that is best for them.”
As flexibility becomes the order of the day, owners and designers must approach office construction and renovation with different goals in mind.
“We are seeing a reduction in individual desk space with an increase in shared or hotdesking options, as well as comfortable ad-hoc spaces,” says Clarkson, who recently organized a summit on hybrid work strategies with hotel company citizenM. “The open-office concepts are being broken up and the use of phone booths for private conversations has dramatically increased.”
PHOTOS: Jasper Sanidad