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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One serious deficit of remote work concerned new hires, who lacked the informal help of colleagues in getting to know people and adapting to the company culture. Man­agers were challenged in making sure everyone they supervised was engaged and connecting to colleagues; but at the same time, women and younger employees, as well as Black employees and others from under-represented groups, feared being overlooked for promotions because they had fewer opportunities to demonstrate their skills and talents.


TENTLIKE roofs shelter Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, by BIG and Heath-er-wick Studio.

Days filled with videoconferencing are extremely fatiguing, and productive disagreements were hindered by an inability to perceive body language and to gauge emotions, the researchers concluded. While companies have tried to help people connect informally with virtual happy hours, there is as yet no app that replaces gathering around the water cooler.

In order to address some of the problems associated with virtual meetings, Microsoft has also begun to roll out “Teams rooms”—spaces in its offices that optimize interaction with an upgraded versions of its Teams app. They are intended to bring greater equity for those connecting remotely with others who are physically gathered in a meeting room.

But perhaps the biggest issue that has emerged is the hindrance to creativity and brainstorming of working remotely. Teams involved in the generation of new ideas suffered in spite of the array of virtual collaboration technology, according to the research. Those working on demanding projects missed the emotional bonds that can form, and team members “fell out of synch” with each other.

These findings are echoed in what tech companies are telling their architects. New York–based SHoP Architects’ tech clients are bringing people back to their physical locations, because “the degree to which you need people in the office has to do with how much ideation, creativity, and innovation is happening,” says Chris Sharples, a principal. “If you don’t have a lot of creative work going on”—he names insurance companies as an example—“you don’t need everyone in one place.”

Though many businesses are bringing staff back to offices by early fall, architects aren’t reporting wholesale redesigns to accommodate the post-Covid workplace yet, since uncertainties still abound. A rapid decline in social-distancing and mask requirements has organizations considering the end of plexiglass partitions and distanced seating. And the HVAC upgrades that a few months ago seemed essential may not be. But holdover Covid requirements may remain in place, since some jurisdictions may not permit vaccination mandates for workers. In talking with clients—especially about projects already designed but not yet built—architects are finding a change of emphasis, if not a dramatic rethinking. In the workplace surveys, people looked to the office for everything from access to IT support to camaraderie with colleagues. So architects are asking, “What can the office provide that you can’t get at home?” as Ryan Mullenix, co-leader of NBBJ’s workplace-design practice in Seattle, puts it. Since creative and collaborative work is better in person, architects are doubling down on settings that allow informal teamwork. “We have been thinking about a hotel lobby metaphor,” says Sharples. “You encounter lounge seating, a place to huddle with your team, and pinup areas.”

Architects also can help companies understand the sociology of working together and using design to support the company’s culture. The Microsoft researchers wrote that workspaces can encourage the development of “weak ties,” the large networks that people build with casual or occasional interactions outside their core group of colleagues. Some company cultures support these expansive networks because acquaintances become a source of ideas and problem-solving expertise.

Thus, places that ease such interaction—from stair-landing lounges and small breakout spaces next to conference rooms to coffee bars and fitness centers—are becoming part of the architect’s brief. In a 44-story Seattle tower, as part of a tenant fitout project, NBBJ included an attractive stairway that opens to skyline views as it ascends through the 25 floors occupied by F5 Networks, an app-support and security company. Most elevators stop every fourth floor, encouraging people to use the stairs, where they can have serendipitous encounters and look into various team areas along the way. “You never know when the Eureka moments will happen,” says NBBJ’s Mullenix. “Rarely does anyone go to a conference room to innovate.” With so many people reporting stress, anxiety, and emotional exhaustion, architects are enhancing their client’s spaces with more daylight, fresh air, greenery, and, where possible, views of nature. “Before the pandemic, we were hearing from tech clients about the importance of access to outdoors,” says James von Klemperer, president of KPF. “Now outdoor space is a priority for the whole real-estate brokerage community.” He cites the success of his firm’s Hudson Commons project in Manhattan, which mounted a tower with lushly planted setbacks and balconies to an older warehouse building. That amenity was key to attracting the fitness-machine-maker Peloton as a major tenant, he adds.


A stair ascends through the 25 floors of NBBJ’s offices for F5 Networks in Seattle.

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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in July 2021