Its Time to Build (Workplace Edition)

COVID is laying bare the shortcomings of the office as we knew it.

No matter what the headlines say, offices are not going away for a simple reason: we need space to work. When we first moved into our homes, we didn’t take into account the square footage required to prevent the dining room table from becoming the unexpected counterpart to the open floor plan, one in which children, pets, and spouses crowd into your Zoom frame and compete for attention. 

Nevertheless, COVID is forcing an unprecedented examination of the role that offices play, and we need to confront that nagging feeling that many of us feel today: the office as we knew it wasn’t that great in the first place.

Before COVID, life in the office was–let’s face it–noisy, crowded, and distracting. More than 50% of Americans have complained about noise to their bosses. The average square feet per employee dropped by over 30% in the last decade, and dropped below 100 square feet per employee in coworking spaces. Stress causes more than one million Americans to call in sick every single day.

Now, with the very existence of offices being called into question, it is a common pastime to speculate on the seemingly intractable challenges of the post-COVID workplace:

  • How do we create viable environments that allow employees to keep six feet of distance from colleagues?
  • How can the office support a flexible and heterogeneous workforce in which people are encouraged to work from wherever they do their best work?
  • How can the office adapt to quickly changing attitudes and technologies?

Strip away the COVID context, though, and it becomes clear that these are not novel considerations. We should be providing a healthy amount of space for employees, we should support a diversity of working styles, and we should be making physical space as adaptive as possible to meet the needs of the people who occupy those spaces.

COVID is laying bare a stark reality: the needs of the modern worker have been poorly served by the workplaces we have designed to date. It didn’t have to be this way. We are grasping for answers because we failed to “build,” to use Marc Andreessen’s term. Now, though, we have an opportunity to reset and get it right. The office of the near future requires a new toolkit.

The toolkit for smart workspaces. 

In broad–and admittedly over-simplified–strokes, we ignored the needs of people in favor of the demands imposed by real estate. As cities swelled, we found novel ways to fit more and more people into less and less square footage. The open floor plan. The modern workbench. Coworking. The innovations of the last several decades have left gaping holes in our available toolkit to support a great workplace environment.

We believe that the following elements will define smart workspaces of the future.

Adaptability. In the modern workplace, sensors and analytics abound to tell you what you already know: your conference rooms are wrong-sized and misused. Studies show that 76% of meetings take place with 4 people or less, while the average conference room is designed for 8-10 people. Who hasn’t spent unwanted time wandering the halls in search of an available conference room, only to see someone camping out taking a single-person video call? However, these insights are not easily actionable. It should be easy to reconfigure floor plans and de-densify offices, but fixed construction makes this nearly impossible, and demountable walls never lived up to their promise. 

Until the COVID crisis is over, we know that attitudes about the office will shift quickly, and seemingly overnight, planning horizons have shrunk to two to three years. With this type of payback period on capital projects, traditional tenant improvements are untenable. Facilities managers, desperate for a way to future-proof spending, must ensure that investments last beyond the pandemic. In order to design for adaptability, we need modular space types that are affordable, easy to move, and easy to assemble and dis-assemble.

Purpose-built space. The great mistake of the open floor plan is that it tries to be a one-size-fits-all solution for all people and all types of work. People differ in how and where they do their best work, and thus people will be drawn back to the office for very different reasons. Whether it is to facilitate focus, collaboration, video calls, or restoration, we need to optimize office design for the intentions of our workforce. Most fundamentally, workstations should allow at least six feet of personal space, not because of social distancing guidelines but because this represents a baseline level of comfort. Six feet is equivalent to stretching out your arms without touching another person’s outstretched hands.

During this COVID crisis, the friction of getting to the office is greater than ever. To attract employees back, the office thus needs to provide highly functional environments but would also be well-served to go above and beyond. Whether it is to cultivate friendships, inspire creativity, showcase brand values, or to encourage knowledge-sharing, we need to find the higher purpose of each office and actively design for it.

Hybrid modes of collaboration. This is really just another purpose-built space type, but it’s worth calling out on its own because it is such a glaring omission from how we work today. Some collaboration will get back to being in-person, but a lot of collaboration will continue to be virtual. Today, the experience of mixing modes of communication is generally terrible; inevitably, somebody has a subpar experience. Venture capital investors may be able to spend six figures to perfectly outfit their conference rooms, but the rest of us are stuck with strange echos, inopportune camera angles, and dropped calls.

Companies like Zoom, Jabra, and Owl Labs are making important strides to support better omnichannel experiences, but the physical environments are often a missing ingredient. Perhaps in the future, Kingsman-style holograms will be the norm. In the meantime, we are in desperate need for cost-effective solutions that are purpose-built for hybrid collaboration.

Work-from-anywhere. In a world where employees are encouraged to work from wherever they can get their best work done, the boundaries of the “office” begin to blur. As people designing workplace environments, we should not confine ourselves to an address-bound definition of the office. Rather, we should be offering a network of available options. Laptops and phones confer a tremendous amount of mobility, and it is easy to see the proliferation of people working from not only home, but also hotel lobbies, airport lounges, coffee shops, shopping malls, and schools.

Today, you see people getting work done in these places despite the limitations of those spaces. Imagine the lift in productivity and the decrease in frustration if we designed for a truly distributed workforce. Your apartment building with a purpose-built work amenity space, a private office in the shopping mall that is a ten-minute walk away versus headquarters that are an hour away by public transit. Advances in modularity and rapidly deployable architecture can help facilitate such use cases.

We need to start with safety, but let’s aim for inspiration.

At the moment, we are all very focused on the thorny logistical questions around how to safely return employees to offices. Phased re-entry, public transit, elevators, social distancing, and PPE supply each presents its own set of challenges. As stay-at-home restrictions begin to relax, it’s important that offices are responsibly outfitted and prepared for the safe return of employees. Let’s just remember to not settle for safety alone.

Today’s headlines suggest that we are either giving up on offices entirely, or headed towards a world of dystopian plexiglass mazes. In the former, we unfairly offload corporate real estate burdens to employees whose own real estate decisions did not incorporate eight-hour days working from home. In the latter, we risk spending money on undesirable amenities that will be short-lived.

We believe that neither of these extremes will play out. Moving forward, employees will be given more flexibility in where they choose to work, and by shifting choice to employees, we have raised the bar significantly for what the office needs to offer. The office thus needs a raison d’être that is more aspirational than safety. The office needs to be a place that inspires a better way of working. 

As I have outlined, currently available tools are insufficient for the task at hand. Let this moment serve as a call to action to all landlords, facilities managers, designers, heads of real estate, architects, and built world entrepreneurs. The obstacles are many, and the status quo is easy, but this global pandemic can be a catalyst for change and innovation.

At ROOM, we started off with a humble soundproof phone booth designed to provide the market’s first scalable solution to the twin evils of noise and lack of privacy. Applying the same principles we used to create our category-defining phone booth—shipping flat, assembling on-site, designing with affordability, sustainability, and ease of use in mind—we envision a future of adaptive architecture: construction-free, modular workspaces that sense and adapt, layouts that are easily configurable and optimized for your team. The workplace of the future is a multitude of easily accessed environments, each one purpose-built and designed to amplify human potential.

When it comes to COVID, uncertainty abounds. But what I can tell you with a great deal of confidence is this: we at ROOM are busy building.