The Future of the Workplace


The challenges posed by the pandemic have thrown up all sorts of questions and initiated the most dramatic shift in workplace culture in decades. We are now entering a transformative phase as we look to understand how the positive learnings from the past year can contribute to the establishment of better ways of working. We look to the leaders in office design to see how they are imagining a more humane and productive future for the workplace.

As glimpses of a post-vaccine world come into fuzzy focus, one of the biggest challenges faced by companies is trying to figure out what the future of work actually looks like, and where it will take place. Technology behemoths (Facebook, Google, Twitter, Square) have announced indefinite ‘Work from Home’ policies while Dropbox has named itself ‘Virtual First’. At the other end of the spectrum, Goldman Sachs bullish CEO has described WFH as an ‘aberration’ that they are going to correct as quickly as possible.

For many professionals though, the great work from home experiment has given us confidence that a flexible approach is possible, and the technology is already there to support it. But it’s equally clear that human connection is fundamental to working culture and increasingly, surveys show that given the choice, workers would prefer to return to the office with the option of working remotely several days a week.

After a year’s debate if there’s a consensus it’s that one-size won’t fit all. The Covid crisis has changed the demands on offices and the future of work will be hybrid - embracing office, home, and places in between. ‘Changing Expectations and the Future of Work’, a global report by Steelcase, found that 72% of companies are looking to develop a hybrid working life that aims to allow employees the flexibility to personalize their work life while still emphasizing corporate culture.  Whether we’re talking about planning the future workplace or adapting existing offices, the big question is what does this look like and how can design support new ways of working? ‘Leaders want people to work together but their old office won’t support the new reality.’ says Gail Moutrey, Vice President of Workplace Innovation at Steelcase. ‘Now is the time for companies to seize the opportunity to reinvent the workplace experience ….employees don’t want to return to the workplace they had before, they want to return to something better.’

For architects, designers, technologists, and office furniture companies the race is on to propose new formats that attempt to combine the best parts of WFH with face-to-face collaboration. In Knoll’s new report ‘The Thriving Workplace’ rather than focusing on the office as the distinct entity that it was until a year ago, they propose an ecosystem rather than a location. ‘The Thriving Workplace is more than simply the office; it is the heart of the organization. It powers a complex and expanded ecosystem that gives employees the flexibility to work from headquarters, a satellite office, home, a co-working space or even from a third space—like a café or on the road.’ Taking the crisis as an opportunity to build a more ‘humanistic and resilient’ work environment, the report defines key characteristics of The Thriving Workplace as embracing flexibility and choice, leveraging technology, delivering a cultural hub, and encompassing holistic well-being. The study and a companion white paper can be downloaded here.  

“After a year’s debate about the future of work, if there’s a consensus it’s that one-size won’t fit all.”

Vitra takes a similar approach to what it calls ‘distributed work’, the catchy title of a recent e-paper about the future of shared spaces. ‘After the remote working experiment of the past year, many companies are looking for guidance to implement a model that works for their organisation and their workforce. Any distributed model – whether its fully co-located, hybrid or fully remote – poses a series of design problems for homes and offices.'

Turning its own organisation into a case-study, Vitra loosely brackets four employee types and their workplace needs, from ‘Workplace Residents’ whose roles tie them to the office fulltime,  to ‘Nomad Workers’, whose work involves foraging in the world at large and who  can be fully remote. In between there are ‘Workplace Enthusiasts’ who spend most of their time in the office but choose to work remotely for at least part of the week, and ‘Workplace Citizens’, agile workers who divide their time between co-working, client meetings and WFH and are not assigned a specific workplace.  

Behind all this is the struggle to understand the altered mindset of employees post-pandemic. In a recent webinar, Haworth addresses the psychological conundrum face-on, asking how we can ‘design space for a population that may not be ready to give up the comforts of home, delivered meals, and the utter joy of wearing yoga pants every day—even though they crave in-person connection?’

In future, if workers opt to come in once or twice a week to meet colleagues and clients this will have major implications for office space, allowing companies to downsize and close offices. (According to the Steelcase report 86% of companies are planning to revise their real estate strategy). Of course, space optimization is a common factor driving office design, but this time the reality is that it’s shifting costs from the business to the household.

© Vitra
Soft Work by designers Barber Osgerby for Vitra is a modular seating system that can be easily organised into diverse arrangements, enabling a range of different ways of working. 

One question hanging in the air is how should companies support employees working from home? Should they be doing more than upgrade technology or send round a a zippy task light or an ergonomic chair? For me at least one of the delights of a year on zoom has been the sneak peek inside colleagues’ homes, from the kitchen schoolroom to a Bollywood style bedroom extravaganza converted into workspace. But will this change? Will, or can, companies make WFH policies part of their talent attraction and retention strategy? Traditionally the worker’s home is beyond a company’s influence, but will employees soon appear in subtly branded WFH setups? Google already provide staff with a professional home office setup including paying for the extra square meters the home office takes up in the home. Other companies are planning to contribute to the costs of renting desk space in flexible-coworking spaces on the local high street for urbanites who cannot work form their cramped homes. Already there is  a slew of mobile pods and panels coming off the Covid design-line to deal with the acoustic stress of zoom work in open plan homes. But if the home becomes more like work-like, equally there is talk of the office turning into a club, an environment designed to nurture connection, collaboration and innovation, and convey a sense of identity and company culture among remote workers who only come together ‘in real life’ occasionally.

Referring to the three stages of resilience - ‘Survive, Recover, Thrive’ –  senior designers from global architecture firm Gensler diagnose that many companies are only just emerging from the ‘Survive’ phase of the pandemic. In discussion with Kvadrat’s Senior Vice President of Marketing Njusja de Gier, the Gensler experts expressed the belief that the remaining two phases of resilience, ‘Recover’ and ‘Thrive,’ can only occur within a vital corporate culture that promotes learning and opportunity. Although working from home may be appealing short-term, in the long-term offices will be necessary as drivers of thriving company culture by becoming charged places for hyper-collaboration, hyper-communication and hyper-innovation.

Chie Matsushita, Studio Director of Gensler’s Tokyo Office reports that their research has found several Japanese companies view the upheaval of the pandemic as an opportunity to transform entrenched traditional habits into a more innovative working style. Although the return to the office, Gensler predict, will happen at different paces in different places, cultures and industries, and the precise nature of the form it will take remains to be seen, it is nevertheless a case of ‘The Office is dead. Long live the Office!’

So, a year on, all that’s really clear is that we are facing a period of transformative change in workplace design, and these new workspaces will need to be shapeshifters, pulled in many different directions. But arguably, the real challenge of the next year is how can we use what we’ve learnt from 2020 not for a return to work as normal but to shape a new work culture. Watch this space as ReThink reports from the work frontline.

Jane Withers
April, 2021