Think COVID Shapes The Future Office? Think Again.

The overlooked influences that will more strongly define where we work.

July 8, 2021

Partner, NBBJ


The impact of COVID is extraordinary. An unexpected, yet accelerated conversation has compressed a century of debate on how to work better into a one-year dialog.

Our comfort level – high or low – with offices leads to an expedited resolve to address long-lived conversations around density, commute, work mode, remote connectivity, and physical health. It’s also caused us to question more deeply how work affects life (and vice-versa), what an office provides that we can’t get at home, and the impact of our jobs on our communities and our mental wellbeing. We have elevated both personal and collective discernment around what is needed to be our best.

This experience also has resurfaced not only much of what was already known, but what is often overlooked – or underappreciated. We are social beings, yet we are unique individuals. We enjoy convenience, but don’t necessarily learn well when just one click away. We are inherently connected to nature, but not all of us have direct access to that benefit.

As businesses contemplate their next workplace, leaders will be asked to answer multiple questions that impact recruiting, productivity culture, and experience. That response will likely center around one initial fundamental ask: why should employees return?

Many agree that a physical workplace offers a chance to engage in ways we can’t remotely, and yet a remote environment provides control and refuge that doesn’t happen in an office. Many also acknowledge that our next workplace – whatever that is – cannot be the one we previously knew. Space, behaviors, and schedules must all shift to accommodate learnings from our remote experiences. Offices – or whatever they will be known as – must now provide experiences and benefits we can’t get elsewhere.

However, as these messy, unique, and highly-personal situations are contemplated, there may be a risk of missing specific cues that are critical to long-term support of the best talent and ideas, regardless of where they do their work. Here are five areas of organizational awareness that should not be overlooked:

Most employees of innovative companies are eager for learning opportunities that continuously provoke new levels of awareness. Although much of that learning may be specific to how to improve skillsets and feed curiosity, that drive is also related towards discovering personal style and approach. Critical career guidance is often less about who one wants to become and more about the traits they hope to avoid (Harvard Business Review – the Good, the Bad, the Productive).

Dedicated advocacy programs coupled with “structured serendipity” – the intentional overlapping of colleagues through schedule and work modes – can lead to a perpetual education loop. Peripheral training – sessions that are less specific about doing tasks better and more geared towards personal improvement and advancement – is an opportunity to create well-rounded employees who are better students, teachers, and citizens.

For years, organizations selected a location based on where they could do the most business. Talent followed, arriving in those places in droves but sometimes settling for the local lifestyle offered. As costs of living and technological advancements rose exponentially, work locations shifted to places where companies could discover emerging talent. Proximity to universities, research institutions, and airports were key attributes. Now, as individuals prioritize lifestyle, companies are realizing their real estate “presence” may likely need to be anywhere. Talent is choosing a preferred way of life, and businesses are following – a complete reversal in the conventional chain.

Reconsider what a convening places is; the future office will be versatile and scaled to suit, fitting in everything from downtown towers to shopfronts to community centers to homes.

From the start of the pandemic, there has been an understandable concern around “haves and haves-nots.” We know that in-person collaborations often start before – and continue well beyond – the scheduled meeting time. For those calling in for specific time frames, those important conversations will be missed, putting those in a remote setting at a potential disadvantage. There is much discussion around means and technologies to address these circumstances, including protocols for hybrid mode versus full remote or in-person mode. A bigger gap, however, may likely be growing between generations. Although technology makes it seem as though there is a level playing field, those who have years of experience in either the industry or with an organization tend to have established relationships, networks, and institutional knowledge regarding how to successfully lead. They also are often later in their career, and their remote environment tends to be more conducive to the work they do – more space and fewer interruptions. These experiences skew the reality of what most of a workforce might be experiencing.

What an in-person space offers to younger or newer employees can help address this disparity. What a company provides for its employees at home can as well.

In the next five years, the majority of our workforce will consist of a generation that has witnessed social injustices, a changing climate, a mental health crisis, and a pandemic. They will expect their employers to not only take positions but, more importantly, actions on how to combat these issues. The environments and experiences of a day at work will be scrutinized not just through a lens of personal growth, but through a deliberate focus on how that day makes life, society, and the planet better. Ideally, employees don’t have to choose between volunteering and a career.

Exposure to impact – and opportunities for further contribution – should be a part of every company’s dialog. Narratives and physical links to these outcomes are a great start; co-sharing spaces with those you’re impacting might bring more meaning.

The tie between a company’s business vision (i.e. what it does in the market) to a company’s ethos (how it reflects its beliefs) is an emerging metric many employees are considering. Much like the generational expectations noted above, employees are selecting where to work based on how well a company “walks the walk.” The more palpable the benefit of one’s work on others (socially, environmentally, economically, culturally), the stronger the emotional tie between a job and a contribution. Consider moving beyond the passive customer connection (displays and stories) to active customer relationships (embedded service centers and partnerships).

The experiences an organization provides for a customer extends beyond simply how they use an interface. When a team can sense the value they bring to the customers they serve, they not only improve their awareness of a quickly evolving market, but of how to improve the product being created.

After a year of incubated debate, there will be tremendous pressure to provide an ultimate outcome. Some organizations will return to the office as if nothing happened, others will move forward as if the office never existed. Most will occupy an interstitial space that ranges from furniture solutions and revised sharing ratios to a radical rethinking of how physical environments offer restorative experiences.

It’s becoming more obvious that 2021 will be the big experiment, so treat this upcoming year like the scientific method – create a hypothesis, test, iterate, and start again. Also recognize that the best outcomes in life usually require some sacrifice. In our personal lives, diet and exercise in exchange for better health is a daily reminder of this trade-off. At work, it will be important to assess where individuals and companies should stretch for greater fulfillment and personal reward. These less-discussed but no less important influences will likely be the true drivers of the next workplace.

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