The 21st century office will never be the same

Distanced layouts, separated cubicles and personal space are the new office demands.

Zain Jaffer
Founder and CEO, Zain Ventures

When COVID-19 upended working life for nearly every executive worldwide, people were asking one question: Will we ever go back to the office? At first, it seemed unclear. Industry legends were denouncing their real estate holdings. Warren Buffet said the following: “When change happens in the world, we adjust.”

Adjust people did. Marcus & Millichap estimates a 40% growth in remote work across the U.S. Corporate hubs like Manhattan saw a 50% reduction in corporate leasing volume in only a matter of months. Many companies found success with remote work, and the ability to conduct business from home played a major part in preventing any further economic disaster.

But after months of remote adaptation, the importance of the office in corporate life is clear. It’s true that in many cases, work can be conducted from home. But the office is a space for collaboration, talent recruitment, onboarding and inspiration. Four quarters without those four walls would be a big loss, and employers understand better than ever the need to get creative.

The answer now seems clear: A return to office is in the near future. But a follow-up question has arisen: Will the office ever be the same? As teams gear up to facilitate a staged and safe return, employers and HR professionals already have innovated on physical and digital office design. It seems safe to say that the 21st century office is forever changed.

The post-COVID-19 workspace: Physical adaptations. After such core-shaking disruption, it would be eerie to return to an office that looked exactly the same as it was left. The post-COVID-19 office has many design-related requirements. Most striking is the reversal of the densification trend. The amount of office space devoted to each employee has been shrinking consistently through the years, and it’s a trend the pandemic has wholly rejected. Distanced layouts, separated cubicles and personal space – these are the new office demands.

In navigating its return, Cushman & Wakefield created the Six Feet Office. The design features contactless pathways, one-way hallways, distanced desks, disposable surface protectors and signage to direct the flow of the team. Other companies have invested in larger desks and more partitions between departments. Rather than open layouts, it’s likely new builds will begin with closed floor plans and find creative strategies for teams to remain connected.

21st century tech. Perhaps the main area of focus when it comes to workplace adaptation, and the most exciting, is smart technology. Although the claims can seem outlandish (see Facebook’s mixed-reality workspace), the technology already exists. The combination of building tech, smartphone apps and wearable sensors could transform the post-pandemic workplace, making it a much safer space.

A walkthrough could work as follows. Employees have an app on their phone that’s designed by their building. At the entrance, they’re able to trigger contactless entry, navigate through touchless turnstiles, and be told by the app which elevator to take to which room. The app knows the location of other team members, where there may be too much exposure and which surfaces most recently have been used. When the app directs the employee to conference room B, it also sends the janitorial team a notice that conference A is due for cleaning.

The possibilities could be endless. The employee can use the same system to order a coffee from the café, to book a mat during 5 o’clock yoga on the terrace, even to wait in line for the bathroom. Building owners, with access to the data, could optimize their spaces. Employers, with some creativity, could use the app to make the workplace experience more convenient for their teams.

Enabling the hybrid solution. In reality, it seems most employers will be working out hybrid solutions, with some employees coming in to the office and some remaining at home. Even if safety is solved, it’s best not to overwhelm the system, and many employers have found benefits from remote work that they want to carry forward.

It’s the next task of technology, to be able to ensure a smooth workflow when some people are side by side in the conference room and others are viewing the screen at home. The first area for improvement is the video call. Personal computer technologies like Zoom have surpassed most corporate IT, and most people can navigate their laptops better than they can facilitate an on-screen conference room meeting. Project sharing software also will be invaluable in the coming months and beyond. Adobe’s Creative Cloud or Apple’s iCloud will make it possible for files to move between at-home workers and in-person teams. It can, and should, be as simple as passing around a memo.

When the 21st century office was sent back to the drawing board, a kind of evolution began. While these adaptations are spurred by the need to reduce virus transmission and maintain distance at all costs, the aim quickly will switch to revolve around the elevation of the in-person office experience. In short, the post-COVID office will never be the same. But with patience, and creativity, it should be a whole lot better.

Featured in CREJ’s September 2020 Office Properties Quarterly 

Edited by the Colorado Real Estate Journal staff.