Since the pandemic sent workers home last year, a slew of modifications have been made to office buildings to protect against the spread of the coronavirus.
Now, as companies prepare to bring workers back, experts say even more changes are on the way.
Expect expanded gathering spaces and fewer personal workstations, for instance, changes that are being fueled by the success of working from home. Companies like Google, Microsoft and Walmart have already announced proposals for hybrid work models that will allow employees to continue to work remotely at least a few days a week.
These new arrangements mean companies may need less office space, and some have already cut back on their real estate needs, according to a survey from the consulting firm PwC. Target said last month that it was giving up office space in downtown Minneapolis.
“We really are at an inflection point,” said Meena Krenek, an interior design director at Perkins+Will, an architecture firm that is revamping offices for new modes of working.
Last spring, while lockdowns were in place, landlords and tenants prepared for what they thought would be a return to the office in the summer and fall. Desks were dragged 6 feet apart and Plexiglas barriers installed between them. One-way arrows were stenciled on corridor floors, chairs were removed from conference rooms, and an elaborate choreography was developed to determine how and when teams would return to avoid overcrowding.
Then many workers simply stayed home. As the pandemic dragged on and people got the hang of Zoom, many discovered it was possible to be productive while parked on living room sofas or in backyard lawn chairs.
Now, as company heads are again planning for a return to the office, not only safety measures but also the new work arrangements are driving discussions about the post pandemic workplace. More than 80% of companies are embracing a hybrid model whereby employees will be in the office three days a week, according to a new survey by KayoCloud, a real estate technology platform.
Workplaces are being reimagined for activities benefiting from face-to-face interaction, including collaboration on projects and employee training, as a way to promote a company’s culture and identity.
Common areas will be increased and equipped with furniture that can be moved as needs change. Steelcase and Knoll, suppliers of office furniture, report strong interest in mobile tables, carts and partitions.
But as the amount of space devoted to gathering expands, the fate of one’s own personal turf at the office hangs in the balance. Why, company leaders are asking, should someone who is in the office one or two days a week require a space that will sit empty the rest of the time? In some cases, personal desks are being replaced with “hoteling” workstations, also called hot desks, which can be used by whoever needs a place to touch down for a day.
Conference rooms, too, are getting a reboot. In the past, these rooms were predicated on the idea of people gathering in person. A large screen on a wall might be used for presentations. But some employees are permanently moving to remote work, and companies are puzzling over how to give them the same ability to participate as those physically present.
There are early discussions about using artificial intelligence to conjure up holographic representations of employees who are off site but could still take a seat at the table.