The death of the open office plan has been written about for years (maybe since its inception) but over the last two weeks it hit home: this really could be the final straw. The rules for reopening are both necessary and intense, and it’s making everybody rethink the nature and role of the office in our lives.
Open office plans had been getting tighter, pushing the limits of comfort and productivity. Once we weed through all the gimmicks, new plans will hopefully provide way more space, more structure, more privacy, and less noise pollution.
This ironically pushes up against one of the most tangible, but least talked about, benefits of open plans: they are cost-effective. For all the emphasis on collaboration and transparency, it’s just cheaper to put all the desks in one room, versus managing the construction costs and employee expectations that go along with office-building.
The trick going forward is figuring out what we need in the short term, and determining how it'll affect the way we work in the long term. Social distancing will be part of our lives for a while, but what about 10 years from now?
Offices will undoubtedly settle into a familiar norm, but we are about to enter into an unprecedented era of experimentation.
1. Hybrid Spaces
An office can’t just be a big living room, because it's surprisingly hard to work on a couch for long stretches at a time. We’re going to see all kinds of crazy hybrid ideas that take a cue from networking/co-working spaces like The Wing (which has its own issues to work through) or more IKEA-friendly, down-home riffs on Soho House.
Space that’s less like a traditional office and more like a place to congregate safely and comfortably, and it has to be compelling enough to leave your home. A “club” atmosphere employing familiar, comfortable themes to chop up space: a library area, a sunroom, soundproof phone rooms, a “garage” of sorts for projects that need space. Of course, this all assumes that we’ll eventually be able to congregate and share things at all, which is a big assumption.
Either way, workspaces will take on a more minimalist look, with less stuff, bigger individual work areas, hand sanitizer everywhere, and more open, uncluttered surfaces to clean.
2. Do Not Break The Seal
Snack and beverage offerings are the original perks of tech offices, so it’s funny how even the thought of them not being available in a kitchen area is so alien.
Kitchens as we know them will be on the chopping block, and for those that survive, you won’t see snack bins you can reach into. Everything should be self-contained and sealed up. There will be new, contactless takes on the vending machine.
Be prepared to bring your own snacks for a while. (Is it time to finally (re)invest in a cute lunch box?) Snack companies that used to deliver to the office don’t want to lose that business, and a lot of them are pivoting to direct-to-consumer models anyway.
We might see an employee stipend that provides individual home delivery of BjornQorn and Clif Bars, ordered via a vendor site that mimics branded insurance and medical portals.
It’s easy for behaviors to slide when people feel safe, so beyond having “health police” monitoring communal food areas, offices will have to incentivize mask-ready, sanitizer-forward habits. Warning: this is necessary, but it will feel a lot like elementary school.
3. Germ Tracking and Air Quality
Speaking of which … germ tracking will be a much bigger part of our work lives. Will we finally take sick leave seriously and stay home when a sniffle appears? And if we don’t, who’s going to order you to do it?
Monitoring space, wiping down printers, taking temperatures, reporting cases to the state … this is a LOT of work. Most places will self-police, but somebody in HR and/or management will have to coordinate all of it, and also take on the burden of being a killjoy.
Improving indoor air quality and ventilation is already bubbling up as no-brainer to curb infection. In addition to new equipment, air filters and ducts will require more cleaning and inspection. Employees will want more purifiers, more airflow, and more natural sunlight.
The idea of sharing, in general, is so precarious. Take conference rooms: how can more than 2 people sit in a conference room together, let alone use a shared phone or keyboard, without constant wiping of surfaces? Perhaps we’ll get really good at cleaning up after ourselves?
Or (more likely) we’ll see a rise in flexible professional cleaning services that come in more than once a day to do sweeps of common areas, scheduled like security rounds.
4. Outdoor Space
Employers, and commercial real estate providers, will definitely start emphasizing and expanding outdoor and roof space options. Is a smaller indoor space close to the action worth trading for a location with a backyard that’s further off the grid? If the price is right … maybe … especially if we’re already collectively reevaluating in-person office meetings and commute patterns.
For office campuses in the suburbs, this is a golden opportunity to turn space that can skew toward the dull into something more vibrant. With wifi, sound barriers, landscaping, and comfortable work areas, blank grassy areas containing a forlorn bench could morph into something like a true campus quad you’d find at a college.
It’s a bit tougher in NYC to snap your fingers and say “more outdoor space!” (I’ve tried). But solutions are all around us. Take our building in the Dumbo neighborhood in Brooklyn: there’s a massive, beautiful, open-air roof deck for the whole building to use. Could that roof be converted into a 3-season workspace, similar to how a restaurant might outfit a back patio with glass enclosures and insulation?