Office Matters Part 3: The Future of Office Spaces

Dec. 13, 2021

Design innovation leverages the “best of both worlds” of remote and in-person work.

Offices spaces pose one of the greatest design opportunities as we move towards a post-pandemic society. Returning to the office is important for employees who have been burned out by remote work and are seeking a thriving community for talent management. Design will play a pivotal role in our new way of work, paving the way for companies to rethink their physical spaces. 

The pandemic has tested ways of work, and so future office spaces will undoubtedly serve as spaces where employees can connect regardless of modality. The future of the office as a conduit for in-person and remote interactions will follow emerging expectations of diversity, scalability and—surprisingly— individuality. 

Diversity and Scalability Will Lead Design 

Teamwork is the reason that 52% of employees want to return to the office, according to a study from Kuchar. Especially if employees utilize hybrid-remote options for individual work, the office will be even more important as a collaborative space. 

Some companies might opt for a “front-porch”, hybrid workplace. As envisioned by Gensler, this extension of the “open office” design creates spaces where in-person and virtual interactions occur seamlessly. In a “connected kitchen,” coworkers mingle—some physically at the coffee machine and others from their own kitchens at home. 

Another way offices can incorporate diverse spaces is to transition to a layout of “neighborhoods” based on activities like desking, open group spaces and communal gathering spaces. 

Scalability will also be critical for office design. Perhaps the ultimate form of flexibility, scalable offices account for a future of work with what Gensler calls “accordion populations” in their 2021 Design Forecast

Employees Want Their Own Space, Too 

One of the greatest benefits of being remote was that employees have had individual ownership, both literally and figuratively, over their workspace. Without colleagues and managers passing by or interrupting, there was increased productivity early in the pandemic. For employees coming from “open offices” with shared desking, working from home due to the pandemic may have been an opportunity for personal desk space. 

Personalized space is more than just a company computer or cubicle. From the Kuchar study, 60% of employees prefer a private office with a door and 48% want a dedicated workspace with storage. While collaborative and open office settings will be a staple of future office spaces, individualized spaces will be important in attracting employees who have had previously enjoyed fully remote work. 

So, what does this mean for office design? 

[Related: Office Matters, Part 2: Investing in Employees at Work]

There is not a singular, universal solution. Some workstations will incorporate flexible division, in the form of screens and paneling. These moveable pieces shield employees from adjacent workstations and can be reconfigured for on-demand workflow. Similarly, shelving and storage units may also be more fluid within the office to create additional separation as needed. All providing the employee a desired sense of control over their immediate environment. 

Transparent materials are another solution that maintains visual connection between adjacent employees, even as compatible technology maintains the digital connection with those in different areas of the same office or across the globe. Individualized workspace without any these types of flexibility, flow or transparency can contribute to isolation in the office and make employees feel stifled—the very things that research is telling us to leave behind post- pandemic. 

Leverage Big Data for Design 

Technology facilitated the sudden pivot to remote work and can provide insights for design as employees return to the office. Companies can benefit from emerging AI-based platforms that track employee movement in the office. 

AI-based platforms can create systems based on people movement and generate office layouts and seating charts to maximize interactions. Designed to encourage collaboration, these platforms cluster teams and departments by work style. 

Companies have the power to harness the return to the office as an opportunity to transform the employee experience. Diverse and scalable spaces increase the office’s potential of being responsive to changing employee populations. Personalized work areas capture the privacy and focused environment of the home office. In a changing corporate landscape, post-pandemic design will be iterative, allowing for new ways of work.

BIFMA is the not‐for-profit trade association for business and institutional furniture manufacturers. Since 1973, BIFMA has been the voice of the commercial furniture industry.

Read next: Office Matters, Part 1: Reviving Work at the Office

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