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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NBBJ designed a complex for REI, the outdoor-equipment retailer, in Bellevue, Washington, around a connection to nature, with garden courtyards, green roofs, windowed stairs, and a vegetable garden. Largely completed last year, the strategy made sense for a company whose customers camp and climb mountains. Much of this outdoor space is shared with the public. “Employees who need to be in the office also get to be outside,” says Mullenix. “Brains are hungry for the unexpected, people-watching, zoning out.” The variety of settings also serves collaborating teams and fosters casual encounters. Yet REI, fearing Covid losses, sold the building, before ever occupying it, to Facebook, which liked its amenities and was expanding its Seattle-area presence.

Meanwhile, SHoP was designing, during Covid, the 40-story headquarters for software company Atlassian in Sydney, which pointedly blurs the boundaries between outside and inside. Within an operable glass facade, supported by an exterior tubular-steel diagrid, multi-floor “villages,” framed in mass timber, rise from gardens. “In these ‘between spaces,’ we forge natural connections with daylight and vegetation,” Sharples says. “The building begins to breathe.” Such healthful environments, with an abundance of fresh air, send a message about a company’s commitment to its staff’s well-being.

Sharples offers ideas for existing buildings, even those in dense cities with deep floorplates and narrow windows facing dim alleys, as well as those in suburban office parks that too often subject tenants to vistas of parked cars. “Such buildings need to be adapted,” he says. “By reducing the floor plate, bringing vegetation inside, and maximizing daylight.” When all else fails, he says, advanced lighting technology can aid mental and physical health, changing across the day to support human circadian rhythms.

“The office has to be an attractive place to go,” says Florencia Kratsman, the global director of space planning for the firm BIG. “You have to do everything better, both focused work and collaboration.” As Google rethinks the way it wants to use its facilities, Kratsman expects a “comfortable transition” into three new buildings that BIG and Heather­wick Studio planned several years ago because, already, “we were very focused on health, biophilia, and sustainability,” she explains. “These projects were so large that the design had to be broken down into neighborhoods”—a scale that virus-fearing workers can find reassuring. Under monumental tentlike roofs that accommodate clerestories, natural light will be widely accessible. “There are multiple access points, and multiple vertical cores, she added, “with their own coffee machines, their own courtyards, and meeting rooms aligned with groups”—all tactics that can aid group solidarity and help people feel safe in the post-Covid workplace. Given the benign climate in Mountain View, California, where these buildings are nearing completion, “outdoor spaces conceived as amenity spaces will shift to working spaces post-Covid,” she notes.

With childcare a prominent source of stress for remote workers, Kratsman is also urging companies to consider on-site day care, a relative rarity in the U.S. Parents may feel more productive returning to the office if they can have ready contact with their children. “Every workplace that we are doing in Europe and in Latin countries has a childcare component,” Kratsman observes. When European companies ask what their American counterparts do for workplace childcare, she has to answer “nothing.”

What about Microsoft, now in command of such key data about its own workers? Covid and the research came after construction had begun on an overhaul of its 520-acre Red­mond campus, an initial phase to replace 14 buildings and add three more, increasing its workspace by 2.5 million square feet and adding 500,000 square feet of amenities. The new buildings are grouped around outdoor space into the company’s own version of “villages,” with design commissions divvied among four architects: NBBJ, LMN, ZGF, and WRNS.


ON MANHATTAN’S far west side, KPF added a tower with planted setbacks to an existing warehouse building.

Microsoft has altered some of the spaces within the buildings to recognize its new hybrid work style, “providing a more agile workplace that removes barriers between on-site workers and their remote colleagues,” according to the company. In addition to its new Teams-rooms technology, it has also added app-based solutions that allow staff to verify vaccination status, guide on-site workers to meeting rooms, and book a desk space for the day. These new “location-management capabilities” will enable managers to monitor and control occupancy should a new need to minimize virus movement arise.

“According to our research, the vast majority of employees say they want more flexible remote-work options,” writes Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, in a blogpost published this spring. “They also say they want more in-person collaboration, post-pandemic.” The results reflect the aspirations for a new workplace model that offers the opportunity to innovate and work together, whether in an office shared with colleagues or remotely at home, with maximum efficiency and capacity to create. The company continues to work to reconcile what Nadella calls the “hybrid-work paradox.”

Supplemental Materials

Work Trend Index: 2021 Annual Report. The Next Great Disruption is Hybrid Work — Are We Ready?
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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in July 2021