Commercial Magazine

The post-pandemic office is ripe for change

By Jeff Bond

You may not realize it, but a number of “great” movements have impacted the workplace during the past year of the pandemic. There is the “Great Resignation,” in which each month we see millions of people unexpectedly quit their jobs. There is the “Great Disconnect,” which speaks to the chasm of attitude and communication between some bosses and their employees about the office. And now there is the “Great Reshuffle,” a term used by LinkedIn to explain the new attitudes in the workplace and how the office is going to have to change to accommodate the newly empowered and unbound employee.

Sure, some of this hyperbole is just catchy headline candy. But many companies are expected this month to start requiring employees to come back to the office for at least a few days a week, and there is little doubt that the post-pandemic workplace is going to have to change. From all accounts, the business world is embracing some form of hybrid model, with employees working a staggered schedule of, say, three days a week in the office and two days of working at home.

We expect that the employees will be regarded as being more important. 

— Clive Wilkinson, president and design director, Clive Wilkinson Architects
In this age of worker shortages, however, employees have more sway than ever. For companies to keep the best workers, they need to help create the best work environments.
That means the look of the office will have to adapt as well, according to interior architects such as Clive Wilkinson, the design guru who helped create the revolutionary office environments for companies such as Google and Microsoft. He expects the office to evolve into a space mainly for collaborative work, and there will be less space for quiet, focused work. This means fewer desks, and those desks that do remain will be shared. Your tchotchkes are going to have to stay home. Wilkinson believes the cubicle should be relegated to the dustbin of architectural history, and paper is pretty much on its way out.
“I think most companies that are at the forefront of today’s trends do not use cubes anymore,” Wilkinson says. “I’ve always thought cubicles were a bad model. We don’t think the office can be the same configuration as it was. We don’t think that you can have assigned desks if people are only there two or three days a week. It makes no sense from a real estate point of view.”
Wilkinson is an advocate for an office that embraces a dynamic, mobile workspace, where employees move around and there are a range of work areas that they can use. These may include collaborative settings or quieter, individual spaces.
Jaymie Gelino, managing director and chief operating officer of interior design company Big Red Rooster, a subsidiary of JLL, agrees with Wilkinson on the office evolving into a flexible, open space with different uses and configurations. This may include amenities, such as spaces for health and wellness programs, green spaces, outdoor environments, and kitchen and dining options that allow employees to talk to one another and share ideas. There also may be rooms where employees can go to recharge and reenergize while working or after meetings.
“I think that the biggest change post-pandemic is that you’re going to hear a lot more about sustainability and well-being in a hybrid and flexible work environment,” Gelino says. “Before, we would design the inside of a box to maximize the performance of the company. Now, we are designing it for the performance of the employee or the person using the space. And that is something that has completely shifted in the post-COVID period.”
And it might be hard to believe, but both Wilkinson and Gelino expect technology to play an even larger role in our lives in the office. Employees will seek seamless communication with colleagues whether working in the office or at home.
“Technology will be where we’ll see one of the biggest evolutions as we return to the office,” Gelino says. “This is because the spectrum of technology in an office today really has to evolve to meet the new needs of employees.”
These visions of utopian office spaces where employees are at the center sound great, but will employers be willing to pay the cost for such amenities? Gelino says her company often assesses an existing office space when a tenant is renewing a lease. The workforce-strategy changes can allow a company to change the office-space floor plan and implement changes.
“So, it’s really dependent on the upfront workplace strategy that the company wants, and they can help us align to make sure the costs are within budget,” Gelino says.
Whether such changes are feasible or not, it seems clear that the hybrid-office model will be the new normal for now. Employers must be aware that they are competing for talent via higher wages and better working conditions. And this means changes to the office.
“We expect the office environment to become much more interesting,” Wilkinson says. “We expect that the employees will be regarded as being more important, and companies will have to demonstrate to them that the office is a great place to be. Everyone benefits from that. It’s a great, great thing for workers and it’s going to be a great thing for productivity. And the world will be a nicer place.” ●


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