What Should the Post-Pandemic Office Look Like?

As the pandemic wanes and companies mull returning to five-day-a-week policies, employers are grappling with how to design offices for a workforce that doesn’t want to be there.

The Berlin headquarters of online retailer Zalando designed by HENN. Photography by HG Esch

There hasn’t been a “one-size-fits-all” approach for employers figuring out how to return to in-person work. “You need to be open to the fact that you don’t have all the answers,” says Brian Elliott, the executive leader of Future Forum, Slack’s research consortium. “This is a place where no one has the answer. We’re all just trying to figure it out together.” Last year, Stanford University economics professor Nick Bloom, who studies work-from-home trends, forecasted that the Delta variant would be “the final nail in the coffin of the five-day return to the office.” His predictions were largely correct—Twitter announced indefinite work-from-home policies while Airbnb left the choice in the hands of employees. Others, like Tesla, which stringently demanded staffers return to the office, weren’t prepared and ran into desk shortages. 

Increasingly, though, companies are recognizing that talent—especially Gen Z-ers—are fatigued after studying and working from home for two years. According to a survey by the National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS), remote schooling has “soured” remote working experiences and 63 percent of respondents want in-person training from employers. “They want to have an enriched experience in the office, so they can roll up their sleeves and learn from fellow workers and their managers,” NSHSS president James Lewis tells CNBC. “These young people have a love for learning. And they learn at a faster rate than previous generations. This is an opportunity for entities to say, how do we create an environment where there’s good learning in the office?”

Steelcase headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan

That answer remains to be seen, but it’s unlikely to resemble pre-pandemic offices that tout their collaborative spaces and flashy amenities like ping-pong tables and kombucha on tap that became popular among the Silicon Valley set. The architect Martin Henn, writing for Bloomberg, suggests that the priorities of workers in this sector have shifted—they’re more likely to see right through perks as “staking an undue psychic claim” on their time by encouraging them to simply stay at the office longer. As the laptop class has become more and more comfortable working from home, the rise-and-grind lifestyle—and the accompanying commute—lost its appeal. 

Henn also predicts that employees are more likely to thrive when their offices are more integrated in their surrounding community. Gone are the halcyon days of isolated postwar suburban office parks, the majority of which are either sitting mostly abandoned or are being converted into mixed-use campuses with restaurants, gyms, and housing. The ideal setting for this model, of course, is a city. Companies can open smaller, decentralized satellite offices near transit that forgo adult playrooms because parks, shops, and restaurants are all located nearby. Smaller footprints mean lower rent and energy costs while affording employees the benefit of feeling part of a broader community. 

Bell Works

If workplaces are destined to shrink and forgo perks, they should also be well-equipped to accommodate all types of work as the company’s needs evolve. Beyond simply being outfitted with “collaborative spaces,” interiors should embody a “Swiss army knife” approach that allows for the workforce to seamlessly alternate between uses. And given how many meetings are still held over Zoom, total synchronization between analog and digital is ideal. This is especially true if employers are forcing staff to come to the office—there’s no use in foisting outdated facilities on employees who then feel deprived of the resources to get their jobs done well.

Since we last checked in on this issue, as the Great Resignation was underway, we recommended that companies look into forward-thinking design solutions, flexible policies, and respectful communication from managers. Given how Future Forum found that 55 percent of fully in-person workers now prefer more flexibility, it remains crucial that employers continue listening to their staff—regardless what the office looks like. The biggest workplace perk is still peace of mind.

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