From “Zoom rooms” to the metaverse to desk sign-up sheets, businesses are retooling offices to attract and retain top talent when building the office of the future. It’s clear the future of office space has changed over the course of the pandemic. But how are businesses harnessing technology to build a new future of the office?
If you’ve been back to the office in recent months, you may have entered a corporate space that looks just a little bit different. Gone are the days of open floor plans and rows of desks. As the talent scarcity problem becomes increasingly dire across the globe, leaders are looking to their corporate office space to attract and retain top talent in a new way. The office of the future – the office space that many workers will visit in the post-pandemic future – may feature Zoom rooms, desk sign-up sheets, and health-focused touches. Some office workers may even head into the metaverse instead of a physical office. One thing is becoming increasingly clear: the future of the office is changing, and businesses are completely rethinking the corporate office space idea.
If the future is flexible, what does that mean for the future of the office space?
There wasn’t an obvious answer once the pandemic started to slow down in 2020, and there isn’t an obvious answer now. Some experts confidently predicted the end of urban headquarters buildings. Businesses, they said, would transition to a work-at-home model, perhaps with regional office-space hubs. Why pay the massive overhead on virtually empty buildings in prime city center locations, when workers weren’t using them?
And to some extent, corporations have followed suit: British corporation BP downsized their headquarters in 2021. Sales and marketing giant Salesforce announced that all their workers could now work from home – and they weren’t alone.
Over time, many workers have said that they hope to find a balance between coming into the office and working from home, research from the Adecco Group uncovered. As a result of endless surveys, some top architects envisioned resilient, flexible office-space hubs, others anticipated a large central communal area surrounded by smaller, more personal spaces. Many experts compared the office space of the future to today’s hotel lobby areas: large spaces subdivided by clever use of lighting, furniture, and temporary dividers.
There’s no denying it: the future of the office space is changing, and quickly. The future of the office will be rebuilt to attract and retain talent in addition to fostering conversations and collaboration. How are companies redesigning their office spaces? Will the metaverse become the new office?
Are corporate office spaces disappearing?
Some large employers do appear to be pulling back on their office-space demands.
“Large companies don’t need all the space they had in the past because not everyone is back in the office fulltime,” Tosha Bontrager, Senior Director, Brand and Products, at WorkSuites, a coworking provider headquartered in Dallas, Texas, said in an interview with the Adecco Group.
This is especially evident among large tech companies, which have spent the better part of a decade competing to build the largest, most outlandish corporate campuses (see: Google). After Covid struck, Pinterest paid close to $90 million to pull out of a San Francisco lease deal. Twitter began subleasing large swathes of its own San Francisco office space.
And it’s not just tech firms. In a June study, 74% of cross-industry Fortune 500 CEOs said they expect an office-space pullback.
Discussing the hybrid work model, JPMorgan Chase’s CEO predicted that for every 100 workers, the financial services giant will require only 60 desks. Instead of downsizing, the company is revamping their New York office space to draw workers in by including spaces to gather, places to suit quietly, places to socialize, and more work, eat and play outlets.
“They expect different kinds of seating, different places to set down their computer and informally walk around and meet,” Amol Sarva, founder of Knotel, which provides flexible workspaces for companies, told JPMorgan Chase. “They don’t expect closed doors.”
But will corporate offices disappear? For Alain Dehaze, CEO at the Adecco Group, physical offices will never disappear – they will simply change.
“They play a vital role in the next normal. There are some areas where in-person, face-to-face contact is unrivalled. Those are culture, collaboration, and coaching,” he said.
The world of work is moving to the metaverse
The metaverse may seem like just another buzzword right now, especially when tech companies like Meta (formerly Facebook) are revealing their plans to build virtual worlds. But these virtual worlds, where users can work, play, and socialize, are going to become a crucial part of the future of work.
In a way, tools like Microsoft Teams or Zoom is already a form of a Metaverse. In his annual end-of-year blog, Bill Gates noted that the pandemic has already “revolutionized” the workplace. “Those changes will only intensify in the years to come,” Gates writes. The remote work landscape will pull people into the metaverse, he argues.
“Within the next two or three years, I predict most virtual meetings will move from 2D camera image grids...to the metaverse, a 3D space with digital avatars,” Gates writes in his blog post.
“The idea is that you will eventually use your avatar to meet with people in a virtual space that replicates the feeling of being in an actual room with them,” Gates continued. To make this happen, people may need to wear headsets.
Not everyone may be tuned into the metaverse yet, but some tech companies are already working on it: In August 2021, Facebook announced their Horizon Workrooms, a place in the metaverse where workers can work together – online. Dial into Horizon Workrooms and work together, remotely.
Why the focus on collaborative spaces?
The answer revolves around the difference between heads-down work—administrative, creating or studying reports, and other solo activities—and heads-up work, which essentially means collaboration. While even heads-up endeavors can be performed virtually thanks to the explosion in tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, in the CBRE study, employers and employees alike named it as the top reason to return to the office.
Changes vary by company size (large, global organisations are adapting better than smaller firms), industry (financial services and tech are leaders), and region (Europe and the U.S. are ahead of Asia). But whether it’s a question of Bring Your Own Device policies, welcoming pets to the office, or better accommodating parents, employers are adjusting—because they must.
“We’re in the midst of an enormous talent war and everyone’s competing for the same people,” notes Brian Tolman, Head of Product at Convene, a company that designs and services next-generation workplaces. “Folks are realizing they have to do something different in the workplace.”
Naturally, changes to the physical workspace are a key component of this adaptation. Even if workers will spend only a day or two per week at the office, it’s important to make the space safe, welcoming and useful.
Designing an office space that workers want to visit
Companies heading into 2022 face one key issue: talent scarcity. For many companies, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to attract and retain top talent. Having that sleek, elegant workplace is no longer a “nice to have” feature – it’s now an absolutely critical part of an employer’s brand and culture.
It’s all about making employees covet the office space. The idea is to create a sleek, elite facility reminiscent of a high-end members-only club—that is, a space that workers will enthusiastically want to frequent. CBRE looked at firms' headquarters and found 58% are building auditoriums, 31% have outdoor spaces, and 69% have onsite baristas or coffee shops.
“We’re going to see dynamic and flexible lounge environments and quiet spaces and team rooms and access to great food and beverages. The idea of the sea of desks with perimeter management offices is moving to the wayside,” Tolman predicts.
Employee feedback on office spaces is key
It’s too early to tell whether better snacks and different desk layouts will work, but this raises another point about office space in a post-COVID world: Experts say that seeking and heeding employee feedback will be vital for companies.
“This is the time to test solutions, gather feedback, make necessary changes, adopt, assess and then repeat. Create next-level engagement with staff to kick-start a new office culture, post-pandemic,” SmithGroup, a U.S. Architecture firm, puts it.
No longer will employees spend years in a cubicle farm, daydreaming about working their way over to that big corner office. Rather, the previously mentioned heads-down work will be performed at home or another offsite location, with heads-up work taking place in an office built for collaboration, connection and communication.
Even here, though, Covid’s continuing influence is being felt, as is increasing comfort with digital collaboration tools.
“Communal coworking areas are less important than they were 18 months ago,” WorkSuites’ Bontrager told the Adecco Group in an interview. “So we’ve made common workspaces smaller and added more private workspaces at new locations. We also include more private office use in our coworking memberships, so clients have the choice of working alone or sharing a space with a few other people. Cramming 20 people in a room to network with strangers seems less important to professionals.
What does the office of the future look like?
For decades, large, open spaces were in favor among commercial architects. Their clients enjoyed the lower construction costs and the increased ability to keep an eye on employees, and claimed the open office improved collaboration—a claim that has remained largely unsubstantiated, by the way.
But long before Covid, some employees complained about noise, lack of concentration space, and even the health ramifications of these wide-open spaces, believing they allowed the common cold and other maladies to spread like wildfire. Regardless of the science on this question, the perception alone, when combined with a deadly pandemic, may sound the death knell for the open office.
However, as the pandemic enters its third year, furniture solutions, floorplans, and circulation plans will all be designed with easy changeability in mind. Architects say offices of the future will be designed from the ground up with this sort of adaptability in mind, adding that retrofitting existing spaces for improved flexibility is very much underway.
Here are some features and characteristics that will categorize the future of work and the future of the office space, according to experts:
In a post-Covid world with increased health concerns, employees clamor for operable windows. In a related trend, even before the pandemic hit, workers have been demanding easily operable shades.
Employers need to focus on redesigning spaces better suited for human health. "We've designed buildings for 100-year floods," Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, director of the Institute for Health in the Built Environment, told NPR. "Now we have to learn to design for the 100-year flu."
"There will be another epidemic or another pandemic — or there might just be another flu season," Eve Edelstein, co-founder of the research-based design consultancy Clinicians for Design, told NPR. "Let's go ahead and design for that reality."
What does that mean? Better hand washing stations, more hand sanitizer, and a general focus around providing clean and tidy spaces. There’s a big argument for spending time near more sunlight and open-air, so employees may need control of windows, blinds, and other systems that help them control their environment.
Speaking of systems, clean-sheet-of-paper office designs will change in ways not easily seen by the layperson. Highly sensitive MERV 15 filters, increased minimum relative humidity, bipolar ionisation, and germicidal UV lighting systems will all be in play.
Building materials may also come into play, too. Asheshh Saheba, managing partner at the San Francisco office of the architecture firm Steinberg Hart, told NPR that employers may consider using high-performance natural construction materials, such as cross-laminated timber, in place of concrete, to create a more inviting office that is also environmentally sustainable office building in the long term.
In the office of the future, employees will sign up for desks as needed, just as they have long reserved conference rooms. Naturally, the mechanism for this will be a simple app.
Desk booking software has already become a popular feature for many offices as they try to navigate flexible working amid a pandemic. Software like Skedda are trying to tackle this by allowing people to see, in real time, who is in the office – and where they might be sitting.
Another trend: “Hot bunks,” an old naval term for submariners sleeping in shifts, are evolving into hot desks—temporarily occupied by those who sign up for them, as noted above. The architectural fallout here is that without desks and cubicles, workers will need lockable spaces for their personal items and gear. To address this need, architects are finding space for small lockers.
More than ever, workers are demanding to know how safe their environments are. How many occupants are in a given space? What are the CO2 levels, and what measures are in place to adjust them? When were public spaces last sanitised? Experts anticipate dashboards, available to all, that track these variables and others.
As noted above, the vast open spaces of the past are obsolete. They will be carved up into smaller suites of offices, “focus rooms” for work requiring prolonged concentration, dedicated areas for video meetings, and so on.
Some employers are also empowering their employees to take ownership of the space, in hopes that they will want to visit more often. The Zappos headquarters, for examples, intentionally left lots of space for employees to decorate their halls and desks.
Those rooms built around video collaboration deserve further explanation, given their importance. A cross between a television production facility and a conference room, they feature audio/video capabilities, furniture, and lighting that allow participants to interact with someone half a world away as easily as with the colleague seated next to them.
Look for more copper (due to its antimicrobial properties) as well as surfaces and fabrics that can more easily be cleaned.
With employees voicing their priorities in new ways, experts anticipate changes even at the outset of building construction. For example, today’s interest in sustainability, combined with a desire to reduce commuting time (and the resources consumed therein), could prompt employers to repurpose unused or underused structures in the suburbs in which workers live. Imagine a vacant big-box store being converted for corporate use. Or an underperforming mall transformed into a hive of business hubs.
A glimpse of the future
As the Omicron variant proved starting late in 2021, predicting the future of anything is a perilous endeavour in today’s world. However, we can study ongoing trends, including some that preceded the pandemic, and safely draw some conclusions.
For example, even before Covid hit, collaboration software, combined with near-universal broadband access, enabled global teams of knowledge workers unrestrained by geography. Add in the success of lockdown-enforced remote or hybrid work and it seems clear that the days of demanding that employees shuffle to their cubicles promptly at 9:00 a.m. are over.
Another long-term trend is the shift toward empowered workers who have a voice in decisions affecting them. With that in mind, it’s easy to see that digital dashboards informing workers about building occupancy, traffic conditions, etc. are here to stay.
Covid-driven changes to office space are being made with flexibility in mind, so that if and when trends shift again, employers can respond without undue difficulty or expense. This may be the single most valuable lesson for businesses as the world learns to live with Covid.