One of the business world’s most sacred traditions at year-end is for industry leaders to predict what’s in store for the coming year. After nearly three years of coping with a pandemic that has changed mindsets as well as the physical work environment, we and our clients have learned two important lessons: change is the only constant, and flexibility is key to adaptability.
As architects and interior designers, one of the questions we are frequently asked is, “What are you seeing as the office environment of the near future?” During the pre-vaccine pandemic, the answer was easy: modify the work environment to protect workers at all costs. We collectively bought into the notion that once vaccines were available, things would return to a “new normal,” and a mass return to the office would follow.
Now, in a volatile health and economic landscape, our response varies depending on the decisions we see our clients struggling with and how they address them. We know of one company that had an epiphany when they realized that the 100,000 SF building they own sits mostly empty, because in their new hybrid work environment, they have never had more than 50 people show up to work in the office on any given day. Possible solutions included selling the building, relocating to less space, and designing it for how their staff works now—or subletting half the square footage and proceeding with redesigning the space they occupy. This is but one example of our certainty that there will be no return to the 2020 B.C. (before COVID) work model soon—or maybe ever.
Management is coming to terms with the new reality of employee expectations. Whereas pre-pandemic, they were assigned a specific workspace and that was often enough, today’s office environment is more employee focused, with incentives to bring back those workers who work remotely with some regularity and consistency. That said, there are many types of businesses that cannot function with remote workers, such as hospitals and research labs. Many of these businesses have a mix of remote and essential on-site workers, which can create experiential disparity among employees.
Incentivizing remote staff to return to the office is management’s holy grail, and we have created a roadmap to achieve it through the introduction of collaboration space. At Margulies Perruzzi, we often compare the plan for a successful physical work environment that empowers employee choice to that of a three-legged stool because it relies on three essential components for stability: physical space that can be curated to be an asset for employees; supportive technology for that physical space; and an HR policy that balances flexibility with fostering culture and knowledge sharing.
Though none of us truly know what the future may hold, emerging trends are often reliable predictors. To foster collaboration and bring workers into the office with some regularity, we are seeing the introduction and enhancement of “neighborhoods” aligned by either functional teams or acoustic preferences, and a rich variety of formal and informal meeting and social gathering spaces. We recognize that there will always be a need for some personal, heads-down space. But no matter what the use or type, standardizing and strategically sizing spaces to allow for future flexibility is paramount, as is integrating supportive technology that will enable employees to choose where and how to work.