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The Rebirth of the American Workplace – Sketch of two desks with two figures sitting at them.


The Rebirth of the American Workplace

Recommendations and trends in commercial office design shift in response to cultural norms, technology, and working styles. Following the 2020 pandemic, how might the design of commercial offices adapt this time? On the spectrum from open office concept, through vast fields of cubicles, to private offices, where will we land?

May 28, 2020

Striking the balance between working from home and the open office.

Some of us grew up enamored with science fiction. Visions of a technologically-advanced future, of people connected seamlessly across long distances with video, audio, and virtual reality were things of fantasy when we were kids. As time went on, technology caught up with science fiction, and fantasy became reality, except, it didn’t quite. While social media, videoconferencing, and remote desktop software advanced by leaps and bounds, social culture and work culture had evolved only in small fits and starts. Then, the age of social distancing began, and everything changed.

It’s unclear how long this culture shift will last, (and tragic how it came to be accelerated) but one thing is clear: the remote work revolution has arrived, and it is here to stay. The concerns that companies had about remote working — that the technology wasn’t good enough, that it would be too difficult to get ahold of team members, that productivity would fall precipitously — were by and large unfounded. For many industries, the tech worked, productivity held, and teams worked together seamlessly.

Suddenly, offices starting to open up post-pandemic are facing not only the cultural shift of people actually being pro-remote-work, but also, that proximity to coworkers carries considerable risk and the associated anxiety as never before. Personal space has always been of importance in office workplaces, but now that our sphere of safety has increased significantly, it’s only natural to assume that office design is going to go through quite a transformation.

The End of the Open Office

What may be the first thing to go? The “open office concept” is an easy target. However inexpensive and adaptable this concept was, times have changed. Privacy and partition-inclusive design approaches are going to see their way back into office concepts. The corner office, may yet again, become The Corner Office — the coveted, ultimate attainment in office real estate.

However, our future doesn’t seem to include offices where every employee comes to work every day. Why build a bunch of private offices for people who are barely going to show up in person? Welcome to the new catch-22 of office design.

There is no doubt offices are still necessary — people need to collaborate and see each other in person. There is too much nonverbal information and creative thinking involved in an in-person conversation that videoconferencing simply can’t replicate — at least, not yet. The “private offices for all” scenario is a nonstarter, as so much office space is going to be empty half the time, and private offices are too expensive to be under-unoccupied. This would seem to point office design towards the ‘dot com’ era of adaptable offices with lots of hot desks and flexible spaces… Except, where are the barriers and privacy we now crave?

So which wins in the debate between open and private office? The answer is always, both.

Hospitality Meets Commercial Office

We need to approach post-pandemic office design from an angle that seems contradictory: privacy and adaptability, both at the same time. Think of this as a “timeshare” or Airbnb office concept. We may not be able to “move-in” to an office the way we used to, bringing along personal knick-knacks and trinkets.

Instead, the private offices of the future may function more like a hotel room: beautifully designed, well thought out, and strategically organized. Importantly, when you leave, you leave nothing behind. Every surface is cleaned between office occupants, or office residents, or guests, if you will. Essentially, the tried-and-true methods of the hospitality industry are applied to commercial office spaces, but not as coworking spaces, as the shared workspaces of an individual company.

Some modern banks already use this concept, as financial advisors and bank managers hop from private office to private office, in some cases many times a day. This model may need to be adopted for all of us.

This could seem to be heartbreaking at first. What about your favorite mug waiting for you every morning, and the picture of your kids right next to your monitor? If you can't work without them, these accessories just might have to become more portable. And that doesn’t mean you’d have to take them home with you — imagine instead you had a dedicated locker at your office (not unlike your days in school) where you could securely store your personal items. They are easily accessible to grab and set up your workspace on days you’re on-site, and stored safely away on days you work from home.

The up-side, much like a hotel room, is that design can flourish with intentionality and style, giving all of us privacy every day at the office — together and apart — all day, in style.

This post is part of a series exploring how commercial design may evolve during and after the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic.

More from This Series on Commercial Design in the Age of Social Distancing

Commercial Design in the Age of Social Distancing

The first post in this series, Commercial Design in the Age of Social Distancing, takes a “big picture” perspective to explore how a new normal doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

The Personalized Hospitality Experience

Before Covid-19 shifted our world, personalized hospitality experiences like private dining rooms, and by-appointment-only shopping were considered luxuries reserved only for an elite few. But, with social distancing recommendations in place — driven first by necessity and later by comfort — it’s possible some of these once-elite experiences become more common. Read more in the second post in this series, The Personalized Hospitality Experience.

Immediate Solutions for Socially Distant Retail

This is all great, but what about right now? It has been a tough road for small businesses over the last few months dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. For those small businesses fighting to stay in business, the opportunity to pivot and re-open in some form is upon us. Facing this daunting challenge, where do you even start? We have you covered there, too. Read on in, Immediate Solutions for Socially Distant Retail.

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