Out of Isolation

What is work these days?

We are emerging from a most disruptive and transformative few years. As life goes back to normal (relatively speaking …) and we are exiting the proverbial eye of the storm, we are starting to comprehend just how much disruption this worldwide storm has created and the long-term implications for our economy and our ways of life. The forced isolation dictated by the pandemic is now no longer required, and while congregating for social reasons is back in full swing—restaurants are packed, hotels and flights overbooked, people are dancing, partying, hanging out in public spaces—returning to work in person has been a struggle.

While this could be easily written off as a temporary transition that will eventually go back to pre-pandemic “normalcy,”  it’s becoming evident that a new long-term shift has taken place, shaped by a profound change in values and priorities.

Not every category of worker has the luxury of negotiating where to work from. The return to office is also viewed differently by different generations. The emerging picture is extremely fragmented in terms of both demands and possible solutions.

Adidas employees at work.

Adidas GOLD, Portland, OR, 2021, Studio O+A. Photo © Garrett Rowland

Design vs. policy

Where do we stand as designers in this complex scenario and how can we contribute to enabling a future direction that offers the greatest benefits?

Workplace design is certainly a factor, but in this evolving societal shift it’s actually standing on the sidelines. The design of workplaces has already undergone major changes over the last 20 years: activity-based workplaces, added amenities like communal areas for social activities, biophilic design, more attention to natural daylight and ventilation, acoustic control, high-quality finishes and furniture—to name a few. The concept that welcoming, well designed, beautiful spaces attract and retain talent is not new, and also clearly not enough to convince the working population to go back to the office full-time. Besides, recent real estate data show that only A category buildings have a chance of close to full occupancy.

Many articles and panel discussions have centered around this question in the last two years. Verda Alexander, cofounder and principal of design practice O+A in San Francisco, recently wrote a very enlightened article for Metropolis: “What Happens to the Workplace When the Workers Become the Bosses?” In reality, Alexander says, the conversation about the Great Resignation and quiet quitting is not about office design. Nearly half of American workers say they are unhappy with their work in a recent LinkedIn survey. The general unhappiness with work comes mostly from a sense that there is too much inequity and not enough sense of agency.

Work space in San Francisco.

Adidas GOLD, Portland, OR, 2021, Studio O+A. Photo © Garrett Rowland

The other mayor factor is commute time. Is it really worth spending one, two or sometimes close to three hours a day on crowded public transport or sitting in traffic to do work that could be done equally well at home? Clearly the answer is no, and it’s worth analyzing more in depth the efficiency and need for moving people around.

Stanford’s economics professor Nick Bloom argues that the war about return to the office is over, and hybrid work won. According to recent statistics, 25% of working days in the US are currently remote, office occupancy in cities like New York is creeping back to merely 50%, and city transit data show a drop of 40%, which is equivalent to two days a week WFH.

Hybrid work brings its own set of challenges, both cultural and operational. How does a company maintain a sense of belonging and community, and how is the time that is spent in the office used most efficiently? Wharton professor Adam Grant gives granular advice on hybrid work arrangements to be successful (schedules need to be very structured!)  and makes an interesting sports analogy. How many days people should come in depends on whether they are playing an “individual sport” (as in accounting or customer service), a “relay sport” (as in media companies where pieces of content are passed along) or a “team sport” (like product design). More collaboration/team sport demands more face-to-face time.

Work spaces that adapt to new needs.

ARTIS Ventures, San Francisco, CA, 2021, Studio O+A. Photo © Garrett Rowland

The struggle of CBDs

Aside for how much time to spend in the office the other question is about how much space will be needed, as the overall footprint of dedicated workspace will be shrinking, partially replaced by communal spaces and amenities. This trend was already taking shape. The slow demise of the typical CBD/downtown office block has significant financial consequences for our cities. In New York commercial real estate taxes represent about 20% of the city’s total tax revenue. Empty office buildings mean not only shrinking revenue and consequent cuts to other public services, but also pain inflicted on small businesses that depend on them.

Architects and designers are working on plans to reconvert these obsolete buildings to other functions like affordable housing, but the transformation is not always efficient or even doable. What is going to happen with these old downtowns? That’s where we need more ideas, more so than in rethinking the workplace for which there are some very good ideas already being tested.

Some of the more recent models for residential and work hubs for remote workers are in rural Germany. The company Neulandia aims to create rural communities, called KoDörfer, for creative digital workers. The first KoDorf is being built near Berlin, with first tenants scheduled to arrive in 2025.

So, what is work?

It appears that more than the workplace, what needs to change is work itself. Picking up from Verda Alexander’s thoughts, ESOPs (“employee stock ownership plan”) are one of the company models that has shown consistent growth even during recessions. It’s a model that has been gaining traction, and studies have found that ESOP companies grow about 2.5% faster per year in sales, employment and productivity. One well known example of this model is Gensler, the international architecture firm.

Rather than relying solely on design to attract workers back to the office, what seems to be more relevant is to approach RTO with critical thinking: with the rise of AI and the reshaping of work in all industries, what do we even mean by “work” anymore?

Main Image: ARTIS Ventures, San Francisco, CA, 2021, Studio O+A. Photo © Garrett Rowland