Flickr/Creative Commons License/James Mitchell

In a recent report titled “The Nowhere Office,” consultant Julia Hobsbawm describes the radical changes that COVID-19 will bring to the workplace. The past year has upended the traditional connection between work and place, resulting in remote employees feeling untethered. But the flexibility that working from home brings is undeniable. In a post-pandemic world, the office will include multiple settings. “This new hybrid space where ‘the office’ is, will be multi-site, never 9–5, and flexible in its working patterns,” Hobsbawm writes.

The report, published by the Demos Workshift Commission, a British think tank, describes an identity crisis of place. In the previous paradigm, place dictated activity. Simply put, we “went” to work. In the post-COVID era, however, activity will more frequently influence place. As more employees can decide where to fulfill the requirements of their jobs, work will come to them. This is certainly not a new phenomenon, but COVID-19 proved the viability of remote work and helped accelerate the change.

Nevertheless, place still matters. Environmental factors profoundly influence our health, productivity, and overall outlook. Work will still need to happen somewhere to be effective. Even if the traditional office is now obsolete, tomorrow’s workplace—wherever it is—will require no less attention to function, innovation, and craft. Here's how architects and designers will transform the design of our work-related environments.

Distributed Programs
As work extends to more places outside the traditional office, the same trend will follow for other activities. Our simplistic paradigm of home, work, and “third places” is outmoded: Each site is now expected to accommodate elements from the other two. The growing trend of distributed programs—seen in the home office—was evident before the pandemic but has since gained momentum. For example, the home now serves as workplace, school, gymnasium, café, spa, and, thanks to online shopping, retail store. After a year of Zooming from one’s favorite couch with a cat and teacup within arms’ reach, the prospect of returning to a formal workplace every day may be unappealing. As a result, traditional offices will continue to expand available activities, adding elements of residential design for enhanced comfort. Similarly, third places will continue to support both work- and home-based pursuits. Although these changes point to increased flexibility, a downside is that the design of home, office, and third places will increasingly look the same.

A Barbell-Shaped Strategy
In the post-COVID world, our approach to scale will change. We will gravitate toward smaller private spaces and larger communal ones—a barbell-shaped approach. At the small end: working and schooling from home have revealed the welcome benefits of partitions. So has an open office floor full of employees on Zoom. Remote videoconferencing is here to stay, and the resulting need for acoustic separation is motivating a technology-influenced return to raumplan design, or compartmentalization into individual spaces. In the workplace, that means the addition of small conference rooms and office pods. Residential design will similarly benefit from the incorporation of acoustically protected nooks for remote work. At the same time, fear of person-to-person contact will motivate the design of larger spaces for groups—especially meetings that include visitors from the outside. Those gathering spaces will offer more “breathing room” with greater social distancing.

After more than a year working remotely from different parts of the house while changing Zoom backgrounds on a whim, employees will seek greater control over individual workplaces. Customizable features may include climate controls, lighting, and adjustable surfaces such as electrochromic glass or Electronic Paper Displays.

After the pandemic, function-specific furniture will give way to a wider variety of types, especially in “hot desk” locations with unassigned seating. A factor of rising importance here will be “perch-ability”—the Goldilocks phenomenon whereby a user seeks the optimal setting, or perch, for accomplishing a particular task. Workers will move more frequently between locations—assuming different postures at each one—providing physical benefits over sitting in the same task chair all day, every day. Furniture and spaces will also merge. Pods, sound booths, and tall banquettes that will marry the ergonomics of furniture with acoustic and visual privacy will proliferate. Variability and customization will be essential. After more than a year working remotely from different parts of the house while changing Zoom backgrounds on a whim, employees will seek greater control over individual workplaces. Customizable features may include climate controls, lighting, and adjustable surfaces such as electrochromic glass or Electronic Paper Displays.

Working on the Edge
We now know that poor indoor ventilation and substandard HVAC systems can lead to Coronavirus transmission. Working from home has also reinforced the health benefits of having operable windows (or of sitting in backyard gardens, for that matter). Employees will be less enthused to return to a traditional office environment with stagnant air, fixed windows, and deep floor plates. The demand for work settings along a building’s perimeter will increase, as will the desire for operable apertures and access to semi-outdoor spaces. In this way, future office buildings may adopt some of the formal vocabularies of multifamily residential structures. Meanwhile, existing buildings will be adapted to include operable glazing, sheltered terraces, and the incorporation of new courtyards and light wells carved out of deep floor plates. Such perimeter-priority enhancements will provide the additional benefit of reducing the likelihood and intensity of sick building syndrome, a prevailing problem in many traditional office buildings.

From Nowhere to Somewhere
The reoccupation of the workspace presents a significant opportunity for architects and designers. The post-COVID “working life won’t be the ‘old normal,’ ” as Hobsbawm declares. Although there will be a strong impulse to convene in shared workplaces again, expectations for these spaces—and for work itself—have shifted. Program will increasingly be defined less by the container and more by individual choices. There will be more pressure to accommodate elements of live, work, and play in multiple settings. To that end, the silos that separate corporate and commercial design from residential design should be dismantled. The challenge for architects and designers will be to support these changes and shifting programmatic identities while still designing purposeful and memorable places.