How many times have you heard that “the mall is dead”? One quick Google search using this phrase churns out several hundred haunting visualizations of abandoned storefronts, eerily vacant food courts, and pastel wallpaper curling off the walls.
Recent conjecture about the demise of the office triggers a similar sense of dread among commercial real estate brokers and tenants as they envision a post-pandemic future. In reality, retail—just like any other industry succumbing to the wiles of the virtual landscape—isn’t going anywhere. It’s merely evolving, and the office is no different.
Office design has matured since the turn of the twentieth century, taking on various models like Taylorism circa 1904 and Cube Farm in the seventies and eighties with the dawn of the cubicle. The most popular and commonly used today is known as the Networking model. Often referred to as the flexible or open office, Networking has flourished in the past decade with movable furniture, semi-divided workstations, and seating arrangements designed to address the need for collaboration, privacy, and overall efficiency of space.
Flexibility has taken on new meaning since the start of the pandemic as employees working at home appreciate new-found independence in the way they work, when they choose to do it, and where. Likewise, employers have witnessed how efficient and productive remote work can be. Still, only 24% of professionals have said they want to work remotely full-time, though they don’t want to give up the flexible work option that technology has granted them at home. We surveyed our own staff and found only 5% would want to telework full-time if the option was available but none expressed an interest in returning to the office full-time either. It seems the most preferred option is somewhere in between, with the vast majority (85%) hoping to spend 1-3 days working remotely in the future.
“We have to give people a reason to come back to work,” says Patrick Gegen, Senior Designer at Hickok Cole. “When retail first saw a shift in sales coming from online channels, some brick and mortar sites shut down as a result, but eventually the industry learned to appreciate the value-add of in-store services and pivoted towards offering customers curated, branded experiences that made it worth their in-person visit.”
In-store activations and events like Instagram pop-ups or massive dance classes caused a resurgence in brick-and-mortar. So much so that even direct-to-consumer brands (those who sell their products online) like Warby Parker and Rothy’s have launched physical storefronts of their own. So, what’s the office equivalent?
“People want a personal touch, they crave human interaction,” explains Patrick. “We’ve all proven that we can work from home and we enjoy it to a certain degree, but we’ve erased the impromptu catch-ups and run-ins, both of which stimulate and contribute to the creative process. Video calls and virtual conferences can’t replace the social experience we derive from the workplace.”
Company culture, networking, and social interactions with co-workers may be enough to drive workers back into the office building. But, according to Patrick, that shouldn’t mean employees return to the same space. Instead, he envisions a future landscape catering to employees who have the option to work remotely but who typically choose not to. That means the new office will be designed with fewer designated desks and more public spaces that facilitate connection while serving a breadth of functions: fewer private offices and more divisible space; multi-purpose rooms that break down for additional, smaller conference spaces or semi-private workstations instead of just hosting large group meetings; and amenity spaces equipped with charging stations and enough table space for several workers to set-up as needed. With the ability to work from home for heads down or quiet work, more centralized workstations will allow employees to congregate and collaborate easily while private spaces will serve those looking to retreat from distractions at home or who feel more productive in the work environment.
“One thing that’s likely to affect how we interact with the office is our sense of balance and well-being,” said Melissa Brewer, Co-Director of Interior Design and a Senior Associate at Hickok Cole. “We’ve clearly grown accustomed to the flexibility in our schedules and the extra hours we’ve gotten back without our commutes. So how can we replicate this level of convenience in the office?”
A study conducted by FlexJobs identified work-life balance as the top consideration for professionals evaluating new job prospects, even outweighing factors like vacation days and salary requirements. The same study found that Gen X (40%) and pet-owners (28%) represented the top tiers of workers who wanted flexible work options – and that was before the pandemic. It’s clear that flexibility and convenience are top priorities for the next generation of workers and driving factors behind why employees today prefer working from home.
Melissa argues that convenience is the holy grail of office amenities and suggests office owners and employers take that into consideration when designing a new space or re-integrating their workforce post-pandemic. Offering services that benefit employees by allowing them to optimize their time at home makes them feel valued while allowing them to focus on work when in office. In fact, one survey found that providing employees with onsite clinics not only reduces medical care costs but the time they spend away from work traveling to and from their physician. Likewise, offering in-house services like onsite daycare and dry-cleaning contribute to greater productivity and comfort.
“Employers that are ahead of the curve were already providing the things in life that help employees save time and feel appreciated–either directly in their building or adjacent neighborhood–before the pandemic,” Melissa continued. “Now that employees feel like they’ve achieved higher levels of work-life balance during quarantine, they’re going to want to preserve that when it comes time to return to the workplace. And I think employers understand that. They have lives too.”
Offering benefits that go above and beyond the standard packages will help entice new talent and a younger generation post-quarantine, as well as help retain current employees by demonstrating they care. Employers and office space will adapt to emphasize convenience and service so people can maximize their time spent at home as well as their time spent at work.
The pandemic has taught us that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to our work week anymore–and maybe there never was. Our internal survey shows that parents desire increased flexibility in order to devote more quality time to their families, while staff who live alone prioritize connection to their team members and the social side of work. Retail has adapted into a highly personalized experience and so too should our workplace. Each individual’s needs, tasks, and life circumstances vary greatly, and our new challenge is to design a space that allows each employee the flexibility to make it their own.
The French novelist, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr said it best, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” In short, like retail, the office isn’t going anywhere, it’s simply evolving.