The Post-COVID Workplace

Rethinking the Office: Research can guide architects in designing for flexibility and creativity
Sponsored by ROCKFON
Architectural Record
1 AIA LU/HSW; 0.1 IACET CEU*; 1 AIBD P-CE; AAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the AANB, as per their CE Guidelines; AAPEI 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the AIBC, as per their CE Guidelines.; MAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the NLAA.; This course can be self-reported to the NSAA; NWTAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; OAA 1 Learning Hour; SAA 1 Hour of Core Learning

Learning Objectives:

  1. Describe the post-Covid spectrum of office work, including work from home, full return to the office, and hybrid arrangements.
  2. Explain the limitations of remote work uncovered by research.
  3. Identify design tactics that can attract workers back to office settings; remove barriers between employees working onsite and their remote colleagues; and combat fatigue and stress.
  4. Explain how office design can support collaborative, creative work.

This course is part of the Health and Well-Being Academy

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There’s a lot of prognostication about the future workplace as the Covid pandemic has begun to retreat and more people are vaccinated. Organizations are examining whether their business needs demand a full return to office work, or whether they should become a fully virtual organization—given the success of remote work over the last 15 months—or whether they should deploy a hybrid strategy.


FOR SOFTWARE company Atlassian, in Sydney, SHoP has designed a tower (top) with multistory “neighborhoods” that rise from gardens (above).

The tech giant Microsoft—heavily invested in effective computer-based work since the 1980s—has some answers, at least from the employee perspective. The company commissioned extensive workplace surveys during the pandemic, analyzing the experiences of its 160,000 global employees, and integrated the findings with research derived from a wide range of other industries. The New Future of Work project informs the company’s approach to Teams, its virtual-meetings app that competes with the ubiquitous Zoom, as well as new products it is rolling out. It has also made this research public, and is applying the intelligence to the ambitious rebuilding of its own Redmond, Washington, campus headquarters.

The key findings can help inform the design or redesign of the physical office, as companies plan a return to at least some in-person work. The Microsoft research supports a shift toward hybrid work, a choice the company itself has embraced. For example, in a survey of its offices in China—where buildings reopened fairly early in the pandemic—69 percent said they preferred a hybrid work model that includes a return to the office, but not a requirement that people come in every day. Only 19 percent wanted fully remote work, and only 11 percent thought everyone needed to be in the office.

Remote work, the research confirmed, presents a range of barriers for many staffers, from burnout to emotional stress and isolation. Team-based collaborative projects and creative work suffers. People miss the camaraderie of the office. Managers fear the loss of ideas generated by casual meetings and informal encounters that many office designs have fostered with numerous informal gathering areas. When record asked some architects what they are hearing from clients and how they are adapting their own workspaces, their guiding ideas happened to align with many of Microsoft’s findings.

Indeed, firms that adamantly resisted any remote work or meeting via videoconference before Covid have become converts. Working from home is popular among people who want to trade the headaches of commuting for more time with their families, a consensus supported by Microsoft’s research. Many noted that concentrated work was easier with fewer office interruptions—and they liked avoiding annoying coworkers.

But as the limitations of remote work have become all too evident, companies that once suggested people work permanently from home are now encouraging—or insisting—that their staffs return to the office. Besides isolation, the Microsoft researchers found that many people struggled with fatigue and mental health issues at home, while self-reporting about productivity by those working from home was inconclusive: respondents were evenly split among those who assessed themselves as more productive and satisfied outside the office and those who reported no difference or felt less satisfied and productive. As many of us know from our own experience, many found themselves working longer hours to keep up.

Notably, women reported working through the evening to make up for time lost to parenting and household obligations, with such long days contributing to increased tensions. In one survey, 85 percent of women and 70 percent of men with childcare responsibilities fell behind in completing work tasks.

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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in July 2021