Not surprisingly, traditional offices appear to have been radically altered by the pandemic, perhaps forever.
According to Grant Christofely, North American associate director of workplace strategy at M Moser Associates, a workplace design company, some organizations still design their offices the same way they did 50 to 70 years ago: static, inflexible spaces where employees perform individual, task-oriented work more than eight hours a day.
“But that’s not how works gets done, how you make money today,” he said. “You make money from ideas being exchanged. And technology has had a huge impact on the way people work, the way ideas are exchanged. The way ideas were exchanged was changing before the pandemic — people are realizing that the time to change is now.”
For example, M Moser’s 10,000-square-foot Manhattan headquarters in the Woolworth Building was designed in 2018 and revamped in 2020 to create a healthier workplace. Employees do not have assigned seats but rather choose a place to work every morning. Instead of sitting at desks, they sit at mobile tables; their portable electronic equipment is powered by portable battery packs.
The firm’s headquarters have been open, with limited capacity, since June 2020; its flexible workspace enabled it to adapt quickly when it reopened.
Similarly, M Moser’s new “living lab” for its offices in Shenzhen, China, offers diverse work settings and choices, as well as a virtual meeting device with real-time connection but no advance booking requirement.
Christofely said he believes companies “must move the dial on how much space is dedicated to individual versus collaborative work. The social aspect of work is one of the most important parts of the physical workplace.” His firm’s “more progressive” clients are dramatically reducing individual workspaces from 70% of the total to 30%, with 70% now collaborative; at least one client is dedicating only 10% of its workspaces to individuals.
And M Moser, of course, is not the only firm envisioning a flexible office environment.
John Harrison, design director of the Houston office of Gensler, an architectural firm, believes “the biggest shift in the post-pandemic workplace will be the radical change in flexibility. People’s behavioral habits are going to be different. The physical office must accommodate that in a forward-thinking, creative way,” he said. What will emerge will be “a blended workforce where some people will work from home, some in the office on certain days,” he added.
Eric Gannon, the workplace studio leader for Gensler’s Chicago office, warned: “If we don’t give them a reason to commute in, they’ll return to their basement to do their work.”
To make offices attractive to those who choose to work there either occasionally or full time — rather than at home — companies are creating spaces for employees to socialize and meet, either in person or virtually.
For the headquarters in London’s Chiswick Business Park of pladis, a global confectionary company whose brands include McVities and Godiva, Gensler created what it calls a “heart space, bakery meets hotel.” This contains an open kitchen and ovens as well as a digital screen that links to pladis’ bakeries in Carlisle, England. The company says this screen celebrates bakers’ key role and shows the process behind its products. Its headquarters opened in June.
Lois Wellwood, global interiors practice leader of the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, known as SOM, said that before the pandemic, “the workplace tended to migrate to one-size-fits-all. There is now the opportunity to start thinking about a return to the office that’s authentic to the organization. People are better supported when things are movable and changeable, with more options for places to work throughout the day. In doing so, the workplace becomes more adaptable, elastic and responsive to what individuals and teams are doing.”
For a 95,000-square-foot tech company office in the Grace Building in midtown Manhattan, SOM created what it describes as a “city within a building.” This includes a stairwell that ascends into the office’s atrium and acts as its central nervous system.
A media wall spans all three of the company’s floors and can be used for companywide Zoom sessions and to display other information to employees around the world. The office also contains a combined reception, living room, cafe and pantry at its entrance; work areas are open plan, allowing employees to decide when and how they want to work. There is also a wellness room for employees with newborns, as well as a shower for those who bike or skateboard to work.
SOM’S Central Place project in Sydney, scheduled to be completed in 2028, will encompass 1,620,000 square feet of office and retail space and create a workplace environment closely tied to nature, with multiple terraces and a facade designed to minimize interior solar heat gain.
For its clients, the firm further recommends what it calls the “anti-anxiety office entry.” This would entail redesigning an office building’s lobby so it contains “breathable and easily navigable spaces (so) we can choreograph the arrival experience to reduce crowding,” according to a document titled “10 Ideas for Post-Pandemic Design.” “Employees and visitors, messengers and deliveries and people arriving by foot or by bike, each will have a clear and dedicated arrival path.” SOM also recommends that this entry contains “more generously planned bicycle facilities,” as well as showers and locker storage.
Similarly, a 13,000-square-foot New York office — currently being designed by Gensler for the Rizzo Group, a building code consulting firm, scheduled to open in February 2022 — will place a major focus on wellness and well-being. Its outdoor space, which has tables and seats for meetings, will be as large as its indoor space, maximizing employees’ access to the elements year-round.
Composting collected from bins in the pantry will fuel gardens on the terrace, where vegetables and herbs will be grown for employee consumption; bike storage also will be available on the terrace for the company’s commuter bikers. There will be an “everyone sponsors a plant” initiative in the office’s central cafe; each employee will be responsible for an individual plant’s upkeep, including watering. And the cafe’s location will be based on sun studies, offering the best, most consistent and longest-lasting light in the office.
For the 330 North Green Street in Chicago, for which ground will be broken soon, SOM has designed a southern facade that is set back to create what it calls “the porch,” a gathering area with retractable doors, lounge, workspaces, fireplaces and an outdoor fitness area and paddle courts, to be used when temperatures allow.
So why are companies going to such lengths? Robin Klehr Avia, New York-based regional managing principal for Gensler, said she believes there is a “war for talent” going on now among employers. She said companies of all sorts and sizes — ranging from ad agencies and small financial firms to consulting and media companies and nonprofit organizations — are asking their employees when, where and how they want to work, hoping to make themselves attractive to them as well as to prospective employees. “Employees can script their own workplace experience — it’s not one size fits all,” she said.
Gensler’s clients outside the United States also are looking for flexibility, fresh air and daylight, Avia added, noting that “the best designs are flexible and fluid.”
She said no one knows if the changes being instituted will be short-term and temporary or permanent.
“The biggest challenge,” she suggested, “is that the office environment is continually evolving. We cannot return to business as usual. It’s a transition time for companies and employees — they have to be patient with the evolution.”