Has the Pandemic Transformed the Office Forever?

The virtual meetings I sat in on were charged with a sense of high purpose, as designers on the front lines used their skills to potentially save lives. Signage was key; 2020 proved to be a golden age for graphic designers. Proposed safety signage in white-collar workplaces was greatly expanded to convey information about keeping social distance, hand washing, mask wearing, and one-way flow in “curated” elevators, lobbies, and hallways. Some signs used humor and whimsy: “Hug That Sneeze,” “Wash Your Paws.” Others sought to elicit empathy for colleagues.

But, in spite of all the research and recommended interventions, the majority of offices remained almost empty; many of the signs were never deployed. By the end of November, according to the Partnership for New York City, only ten per cent of white-collar workers in Manhattan had returned to their offices, and even as people get vaccinated it seems unlikely that many employers will be bringing staffs back before the summer of 2021; Google recently pushed its return date to September, 2021.

Some enhanced hygiene and cleaning procedures may outlive the pandemic, but they are likely to be absorbed into the voluntary rating system for “healthy buildings” administered by Fitwel, the real-estate industry’s certification board, and operated by the Center for Active Design. Fitwel awards ratings to both buildings and individual workplaces based on things like access to natural light and the promotion of physical activity. Many COVID-related best practices have already been incorporated into Fitwel’s downloadable Viral Response Module.

Studio O+A assembled its own COVID tool kit for office safety. Then Orpilla asked the staff to develop a new set of COVID-related typologies—activity-based spaces that might become standard features of a post-pandemic workplace. The Donning/Doffing Room was the top typology that emerged from a meeting I attended, in which the staff presented about a dozen ideas. This space, some version of which many other workplace firms were also proposing, would include a temperature-check station, an isolation room for people who tested hot, a place for mandatory hand washing, and lockers to store outside gear and shoes, in addition to personal items. (Thermal temperature checks are now common in those workplaces which have reopened, even as it’s become clear that they aren’t very useful at stopping the spread of COVID, because so many people with the disease are asymptomatic.) Other typologies that seemed like potential keepers included the Radio Station, a room with enhanced A/V capabilities to connect with remote workers; the Boot Camp, an area for new hires; and the Rickshaw, a small, enclosed private workspace.

Orpilla sent R/GA the tool kit and the new typologies, and Corns came up with a design brief. O+A followed up with a questionnaire and a “visioning” session that added detail to the ideas outlined in the brief.

Meanwhile, in New York, Lyons and his team had decided to sublet the lower floor of R/GA’s HQ. The news was reported in The Real Deal, a real-estate magazine, in early September. The article noted that available sublet space in New York had spiked dramatically since the pandemic. The only businesses that seemed to be expanding their real-estate footprint in the city were Big Tech companies, which were also setting the standard for working from home. Amazon completed its lease agreement for the former Lord  Taylor department store, at Thirty-eighth Street and Fifth Avenue, and Facebook leased 1.5 million square feet in Hudson Yards. However, as Dror Poleg, the author of “Rethinking Real Estate” (2020) and a co-chair of the Urban Land Institute’s Technology and Innovation Council in New York, noted to me, both deals had been in process before the pandemic hit.

R/GA’s remaining floor at 450 West Thirty-third Street would become a hybrid workspace, where some employees would be physically present some of the time, working at reservable desks, but on any given day the bulk of employees would be remote. Sean Lyons, the C.E.O., envisaged people being in the office for three days a week and home for two, on average. “In the Singapore office, they want people in the office Monday and Friday, so they can begin and end the week together,” he said.

One of the pain points that the final round of R/GA surveys turned up was the fear that remote workers will lose out on opportunities that in-person workers get by virtue of proximity. Fifty-seven per cent of respondents thought that the stigma of working remotely would linger after the pandemic. “When working from home people felt others saw them as unproductive, difficult to reach, and taking an unofficial day off,” a summary found. “There is a lot of concern that when some return to the office, expectations and processes will shift back to favoring those who are physically present.”

The hybrid office sounds like a logical post-pandemic approach, and many companies are trying it, but mixing in-person and remote workers presents new challenges for managers. Ethan Bernstein, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies the workplace, told me that a hybrid setup is very hard to get right, and that he advises businesses to avoid it: “I’d say stay all virtual—hybrid is likely to deliver the worst of both worlds.” A hybrid company still has substantial real-estate costs, and it also has to contend with the potentially serious threat to company culture posed by resentful remote workers who feel that they’ve been unfairly denied plum assignments and promotions. And what about all the people who return to work to discover that they no longer have a desk, and that the sweaters and photographs and other personal items they left behind have been packed up or, worse, placed on a table of shame? As Bernstein put it, “People generally prefer a ‘home’ to a ‘hotel’—in life and at work.”

R/GA’s young and tech-savvy workers have been using tools like Zoom for years, Lyons told me, so he was not too worried about going hybrid: “We’ve always had to manage a hybrid workforce before that term was even out there. This creates an opportunity to take that a little bit further.” However, he added, “you do have to continually be open to looking for those potential divisions in the culture. We’re going to have to navigate that.”

By the time the pandemic hit, open-plan offices had become even more hated than cube farms. Well-heeled companies might be willing to spend money on activity-based typologies that offer respite from open-plan distractions, but, when times are hard and office budgets are cut, the yurt and the extra huddle space are often the first things to go. After the financial crisis of 2008, open-plan fell victim to some of the same sinister forces that cubed Propst’s workplace dreams. An open-plan layout was even easier to densify than a cubicle farm. In 2010, the average North American employer allocated two hundred square feet to each worker; by 2017, that number had shrunk to about a hundred and thirty square feet.

Workers have responded to this steady erosion of personal space by building cubicles of sound with headphones. Bound in a sonic nutshell, you can feel like a king of infinite office space, as long as you don’t look up from your screen. Since most office work takes place on virtual desktops anyway, it was easy, pre-pandemic, to perform what was essentially remote work while occupying your employer’s expensive real estate.

In “The Truth About Open Offices,” an article published in the Harvard Business Review in December, 2019, Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber, the president of Humanyze, a workplace-analytics firm, used smartphones and sensors to track face-to-face and digital interactions at two Fortune 500 companies before and after the companies moved from cubicles to open offices. The authors wrote, “We found that face-to-face interactions dropped by roughly 70% after the firms transitioned to open offices, while electronic interactions increased to compensate.” The virtual workplace, instead of complementing the physical one, had become a refuge from it.

The technology industry gave birth to the modern office, and then created the tools to do without it. This paradox helps explain tech’s tortured history with remote work. By 2009, forty per cent of I.B.M.’s workforce was remote. The I.B.M. Smarter Workforce Institute promoted “telework” to clients as the future, claiming that remote workers “were highly engaged, more likely to consider their workplaces as innovative, happier about their job prospects and less stressed than their more traditional, office-bound colleagues.”

But in 2017, with profits falling, the company delivered an ultimatum: everyone must return to the office or leave the company. Likewise, Marissa Mayer, shortly after becoming the C.E.O. of Yahoo, in 2012, issued an edict to its twelve thousand employees banning W.F.H. Both companies cited diminished collaboration as a reason. (Mayer, a new mom at the time, built a “mother’s room” next to her office so that she could take the baby to work.) By 2016, about a third of Yahoo’s workforce had left. In 2017, Mayer herself departed the company, with two hundred and sixty million dollars.

With the onset of the pandemic, technology companies have once again become champions of remote work, while also expanding their real-estate portfolios. Facebook has said that it expects half its workforce to be remote by 2030. Twitter told its employees that they never have to return to the office. Microsoft plans to keep all but essential workers remote until this summer, but it is also proceeding with a multibillion-dollar renovation of its five-hundred-acre Redmond, Washington, campus. In August, R.E.I., the outdoor-equipment-and-clothing retailer, announced that it would not move into its four-hundred-thousand-square-foot headquarters in Bellevue, Washington. Facebook bought the complex in September for three hundred and sixty-eight million dollars. For Facebook, which has fifty-six thousand employees—more than four thousand of which were added during 2020—in eighty offices around the world, the former R.E.I. site represents a fraction of its future space needs, even if half its workers are remote in ten years.

Microsoft has traditionally had more of a wall-and-cubicle culture than younger tech businesses. The renovated Redmond digs will have fewer private offices and more team-based space. The company plans to start moving in by 2023.

Still, the pandemic has greatly accelerated Microsoft’s efforts to create a virtual office for the future. Jared Spataro, the company’s Vice-President for Modern Work, talked me through its plans, which will be designed around Teams, its conferencing software.

The PC revolution “digitized paperwork,” Spataro said. Instead of physical pages and folders sitting on a desk, office workers had digital documents and files sitting on a virtual desktop inside a computer. But these digital desktops didn’t sit inside a virtual office, one in which you easily could move around among other desktops and meet in conference rooms or common areas. There was no virtual water cooler to facilitate serendipitous encounters.

The pandemic, Spataro went on, is accelerating a “second digital transformation”: the creation of a virtual cloud-based office that connects the desktops, where employees will go to work, whether they’re present in the physical office or working remotely. It sounds like the digital version of the open-plan-office revolution—the walls around the individual’s virtual desktop are coming down. And, once again, software engineers are leading the way.

“We think every company is going to need to invest in a digital workspace for each employee,” Spataro said. He added that he was already hearing from companies that want to use the money saved by reducing their physical footprint to build a custom office in the cloud, loaded with proprietary digital whiteboarding and visual-conferencing tools, which will transcend space and time. If you want to know what happened in the virtual office last Tuesday, you can go back and replay the meetings.

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Cartoon by Benjamin Schwartz

“Those spaces will very quickly become the center of gravity for work,” he went on. “We’ll use them in the kitchen, we’ll use them in transit to our jobs. Even when we move back into real estate, we won’t be back to one hundred per cent. You will come into the office, do your work, and then roll up your workspace and take it with you.”

The privacy implications of the virtual office make the lack of personal space in the open-plan office seem quaint. Each keystroke in a virtual office is trackable. In the mid-nineties, workers started to be issued key cards, which meant the company could know when you were in the building and when you weren’t. In a virtual workspace, it would know almost everything you do at work.

Spataro agreed that we will need some kind of worker bill of rights, detailing what personal information your employer owns. But, he added, that’s not Microsoft’s job: “That’s the domain of government.”

Toward the end of October, Orpilla and his staff convened a Zoom meeting with Corns and his colleagues to present O+A’s plan for R/GA’s San Francisco office. Everyone was working from home, except David Boehm, who was logging in from 450 West Thirty-third Street, where he was overseeing the remodelling of the downsized headquarters.

Dani Gelfand, a senior designer at O+A, led the group on a virtual tour of the proposed plan, beginning with the reception area. This space should “signal a feeling of safety,” she said. It featured touchless entry doors, sanitizing stations, an infrared temperature checkpoint, and an isolation room for people who register a fever. (At least in there they’ll get some privacy.)

Using her cursor, Gelfand directed us through the Donning/Doffing Room, noting the lockers for personal items. She continued through a communal pantry “employing touchless equipment where possible”—a contactless coffee machine, a touchless utensils dispenser, a pedal-operated water cooler—to a general-wellness room, which, she said, would be mainly for mothers but also for “prayer and decompression.” We followed Gelfand into the main communal workspace, which featured twenty-four-person workstations, with unassigned but reservable individual desks arranged in a pinwheel formation, and barriers between the desk surfaces that offered a modicum of visual privacy.

This part of the post-pandemic office looked much like the pre-pandemic open-plan layout, only more so. Corns, picking up on the similarity, said, “Nothing needs to look like an office before. So these workstations don’t need to be desks, per se.”

“Maybe we just have lounge furniture and a place to plug in,” Gelfand suggested.

The virtual tour then proceeded through an area with several “focus pods” that resembled three-sided restaurant booths. “The pods could be made higher, so they are more like an enclosed-booth experience,” Gelfand noted. That sounded like a cubicle, the typology that dare not speak its name.

The rest of the office was taken up with a studio for photography and digital art work, and a number of semi-enclosed conference rooms with large video screens and better sound for connecting with staff working remotely. Gelfand likened this aspect of the plan to a “communications field office.”

Boehm said that it looked like there would be a lot of traffic through the focus areas to get to the pantry and the studio. Compounding these potential distractions would be the sound of people conducting virtual meetings in the A/V areas. “Managing the sound in the office is going to be critical as we move forward,” he said.

Article source: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/02/01/has-the-pandemic-transformed-the-office-forever

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