The Workplace of the (Immediate) Future

The Workplace of the (Immediate) Future

March 1, 2021

What does workplace planning look like in 2021?

First things first – this won’t just be a discussion of the impact of COVID-19 on the workplace. We’re interested in what comes next – and subject matter experts from every relevant field have devoted a tremendous amount of intellectual capital to problem solving, ideation, and running through every hypothetical scenario possible to devise ways to get workers back into offices as safely and efficiently as possible. Let’s take a closer look at some workplace trends, and see how they might be catalyzed by the paradigm shift that our society has experienced since early 2020.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, workplace planning was trending towards free-address seating in lieu of assigned workstations, densification of floor plates, and deeper integration of tech into collaborative spaces. We don’t think that all those tendencies will pivot in the aftermath of this global health crisis, but they’ll almost certainly be scrutinized and reevaluated as employers look at future office space needs.

Let’s start with what may be the most obvious – densification of floor plates. As is the case with many trends, this one tends to be cyclical – but has been in steady decline since around 2009. At that point in time, workplaces averaged 200 gross square feet per employee, and ten years later that number shifted to around 180 gsf (or even lower in markets where commercial real estate is at a premium). One quick note on GSF as a metric: while it indicates a trend overall towards less space per employee, the more drastic decline has been in workstations and offices. This has been partially offset by increases in space allotted to collaborative and amenity spaces. Private offices have already been squeezed smaller in many instances, and are often limited in space to only what is needed for a desk and a guest chair. These configurations allow for more focused work and are designed to accommodate the required functions of a job, rather than serving as a status symbol like they once did. Open office workstations have similarly shrunk in size (though they’ve pushed back against a footprint as small as 5’x5’, with a 6’x6’ workstation being much more common) and likely what we’ll see moving forward as workers return to their offices is that they have some level of discomfort with seating closer than 6′ apart. We think that both open and private offices are, on average, at or near a minimum viable size. We see the tiny office trend beginning to reverse itself, with more space being devoted to amenity and collaborative spaces. Considering what our society has endured since the pandemic began, a chief motivator for workers returning to the office is socialization with coworkers. While teleconferencing and virtual collaboration has been widely embraced, face-to-face interaction with coworkers still has some quality that can’t quite be replicated digitally. We see that employers are eager to provide those experiences for their staff again.

Free-address seating
Although floor plates are likely to shift towards a lower density, we think some of these increases in GSF per worker will be at least partially offset by greater reliance on free-address seating. In a free-address seating scheme, workers generally lack assigned desk locations. In practice, teams will often retain distinct areas to lay out project materials – and managers can retain assigned desks to offer some degree of privacy, but lower-ranking employees are expected to grab an available desk at the beginning of the workday and pack up everything they brought at the end of the day. Stations are sanitized either by workers or custodial staff, and as long as hardware is reasonably consistent between employees, technology compatibility should be a non-issue. Free-address seating allows an office to provide just enough desks for the number of workers expected in the office on any given day, with amenity spaces equipped to handle overflow. The pandemic has opened the door to remote work, with many planning to increase worker mobility even after employees can safely return to the workplace. Even if workers are only allowed one day per week of remote work, the number of workers a space needs to accommodate drops by 20%. While some of these efficiencies can’t be fully realized at smaller scales, even teams as small as five members should be able to capitalize on some benefits of free-addressing. At a minimum, a properly implemented free-address scheme should be able to offset a reasonable amount of de-densification, if not allowing for an overall reduction in required space.

Technological considerations
A shift towards increased mobility and free-addressing will require more technological integration than ever before. Teleconferencing eliminates travel time and enables parties with conflicting schedules to more easily find moments to connect – and as workforces increasingly leverage mobility, in-person meetings will need to accommodate virtual attendees in an equitable manner. Products like Double grant remote parties a physical presence, but aren’t necessarily the most practical for every use case. Instead, workplaces should aim to shift the standard for teleconferencing from a screen on the wall to a modality that offers a seat at the table. Placing screens and cameras such that sightlines aren’t obstructed by other attendees and providing a higher quality audio experience on both ends will help boost collaboration and break down barriers between in-person and remote attendees. Additionally, tools like document cameras or the Google Jamboards can help colleagues share sketches and ideas in real-time. Every team has a different way of sharing critical information and integrating the right tools for communicating and collaborating will be critical to properly rolling out a more mobile method of working.

All of these trends have been observed in past offices, and our thoughts on what we’re likely to see moving forward are based on a multitude of expert opinions and workforce surveys conducted during the pandemic. That being said, past events are never a perfect predictor of the future. While we’ve worked with a wide range of different businesses in the past, you may have different or unique considerations. Our past projects give us insight and experience, but we approach every new job with fresh eyes and try to learn about the way you work before designing a solution for you. Looking to open a new office, expand an existing one, or revisit the way you and your team currently use your space? Our planners would love to talk to you about how we can accommodate your workforce, and what architectural, strategic, and technological innovations can be brought to bear on the challenges facing you.