Companies are coming to terms with a new reality of how work gets done. But one big question remains: What should the future office look like post pandemic?
The Washington Post asked five companies to reimagine what the traditional office would look like after the pandemic altered dramatically the way employees work — from meetings in conference rooms to video calls and flexible schedules.
Companies such as Google and IBM have been rethinking the workplace, creating offices flooded with green space and fresh air and company-owned coffee shops. But it’s unclear what the exact function of the future office will be and how that will affect its design.
To be sure, these concepts may not translate directly to reality as the function of the future office is still being mapped out.
“Because companies are trying to do such different things, it won’t be surprising that their offices look different as well,” says Peter Cappelli, professor of management at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
We asked workplace experts Cappelli and Erica Cochran Hameen, co-director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics, to evaluate the five ideas companies have developed to reimagine the traditional office. Below are the concepts, their key features and what our experts thought.
The coffee shop
Key features: Twilio, a communication tools company based in San Francisco, envisions the idea of company-owned coffee shops, which would offer employees free coffee drinks, ambiance and a place for employees to work without having to enter an office. The setup would be casual, with employees able to enter and leave when and as often as they please during hours of operation. Entry would be restricted to employees. The coffee shop model would be meant for areas where companies have smaller workforces, complementing its major office hubs.
“The reason you would go in is the same reason you might say, ‘I’m going to go to a coffee shop today because I just need a change of scenery,'” said Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson. “You go … because, ‘I want some coffee. I just want this buzz [of energy that’s] going on.'”
Cappelli: If executives had a choice, why would they opt for a coffee shop office, which may be an unnecessary expense? “It’s a slightly odd and romantic notion that we’re all sitting around drinking coffee and having ideas,” he said. “It would be simpler to just say why don’t we just rent a WeWork space or shared office when we need it.”
Cochran Hameen: The company-owned coffee shop has a “cool factor” but may include design challenges like ensuring adequate power receptacles, private areas and limiting noise. “It’s not likely something [workers] would do for eight hours,” she said. “But that’s a good thing.”
Key features: Salesforce’s Trailblazer Ranch is located on 75 acres in the Redwoods of Scotts Valley, California. The space, intended to be a retreat and off-site space for employees, aims to complement the software company’s main office. It offers workers the opportunity to take guided nature walks, garden tours and group cooking classes, as well as do yoga, art journaling and meditation.
“Our physical spaces serve a different purpose today than they did two years ago,” said Brent Hyder, Salesforce president and chief people officer. “An essential part of our strategy is finding ways to empower our teams to come together and connect safely.”
Cappelli: Lofty investments in retreat spaces is not new, but often fade when companies need to cut costs. “I don’t think anyone thought this was stupid,” he said of previous corporate retreat locations. “They thought it was extravagant.”
Cochran Hameen: The payoff just might be worth it for the limited number of companies that can afford a retreat space. “Think about cost in terms of beneficial health to employees,” she said. “It’s the value of someone’s health.”
Corporate housing on campus
Key features: Google’s 1.1-million-square-foot Bay View campus based in Mountain View, California, sits on 42 acres — 20 acres of which are open space — and features two office buildings, a 1,000-person event center and 240 short-term employee corporate housing units. Google separated focus spaces and collaborative areas by floor.
All desks have access to natural daylight and outside views with greenery scattered throughout the office. Automated window shades open and close throughout the day and the ventilation system uses 100% outside air versus recycled air.
“The process gave us the chance to rethink the very idea of an office,” said David Radcliffe, Google’s vice president of real estate and workplace services said.
Cochran Hameen: The ventilation systems will not only help reduce COVID-19, but cold and flu germs from filtering through the workplace. But overnight accommodations, though helpful, might also limit employees’ business travel experience.
Cappelli: The campus falls in line with Google’s historic attempts to keep people at their offices by offering them more perks — whether it be free food or spaces aimed to promote wellness. “Do I really want to work from home from my basement when I can be in this fabulous utopian space?” he said. “I think that’s what they’re doing.”
Living room collaboration
Key features: PagerDuty, a digital operations management platform, revamped its offices to cater to events, collaboration, client visits and team meetings instead of individual heads-down work after opting for a hybrid office policy that allows employees to choose a work mode that fits them best. It removed two-thirds of its desks and divided the office into what it calls “neighborhoods.” Each neighborhood, which looks like a glorified living room or cafe, has open seating areas, some desks and a spot for tea that employees can reserve. The office also features a conference room that’s in the middle of open space to promote healthy air flow.
“We basically said … we need to build a totally different vibe,” said PagerDuty Chairwoman and CEO Jennifer Tejada. “It needs to be … more like [the private membership club] Soho House and less like an office.”
Cochran Hameen: Remote work opportunities are a big selling point for workers, giving companies like PagerDuty a leg up. But managers will likely need to rethink employee evaluations, shifting from “watching them work” to a creative new method that works for the team.
Cappelli: Reservation models have the potential to create hiccups when it comes to scheduling and storing equipment. This can create a scheduling nightmare, leading to overbooking and crowded spaces at times and an empty office during others.
A morphable office
Key features: IBM’s three-story office in Toronto is meant to be easily reconfigured based on how the office will be used each day. For quick layout changes, the technology company’s office features movable walls, adjustable workstations and lightweight furniture. It also has breastfeeding and changing room areas and meditation and prayer spaces. It is equipped with sensors to help the company monitor how spaces are used and to prevent bottlenecks.
“With our new hybrid way of working, it was really important for us to create a space … designed for both comfort and collaboration,” said IBM Canada President Dave McCann.
Cochran Hameen: The movable walls and adjustable space follows some of the “best practices” for sustainability and energy efficiency, while breastfeeding rooms and changing areas may encourage more moms to join or remain in the workforce.
Capelli: The modular approach has historically been a cost-saving measure, but removing assigned desks often forces employees to carry all their work items with them — an idea that was once popular but faded out. “It sounds like a good idea to the finance people,” he said. “The reason it died is because people hated it.”