David Foessel

As a nexus of technology, community, and the locus of our livelihood, the workplace is a topic of perpetual interest in architecture and interior design. The novel coronavirus pandemic, however, has disrupted the workplace in ways that few pundits anticipated. Previously, design firms, industry specialists, and academic researchers speculated on the efficacy of open offices, team-based workspaces, self-employment and co-working, occupant loads, real estate efficiency, mobility, flexibility, communications tools, and artificial intelligence.

In light of the work-from-home orders around the nation, professionals are reconsidering and even predicting the reversal of some of the trends listed above. One trend undergoing reversal is the increase in population densities in team-based, open office configurations. “Densification will take a hiatus,” said Janet Pogue-McLaurin, Gensler global workplace practice areas leader, in a Vox interview. “We’ll shift to, ‘How do we dedensify to create the physical distancing that we now need to have?’” New COVID-19 protocols will require greater physical separation in workplaces via spatial, physical, and temporal means. Workstations will be spaced further apart, conference rooms depopulated, space-dividing partitions erected, and staff issued rotating schedules. For example, a portion of employees will come to the office on a given day, while the rest will work remotely.

Commercial building owners and corporate CEOs are fully aware of the change. Now that office tenants have carried out a largely successful pivot online, companies are questioning their traditional investment in expensive real estate. “We’ve proven we can operate with no footprint,” Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman told Bloomberg. Two Trees Management owner Jed Walentas notes the impracticality of pre-COVID expectations. “If you got two and a half million people in Brooklyn, why is it rational or efficient for all those people to schlep into Manhattan and work every day?” he asked in a New York Times interview. “That’s how we used to do it yesterday. It’s not rational now.”

WeWork Fulton Center Commons in New York City
Courtesy WeWork WeWork Fulton Center Commons in New York City

Co-working spaces are similarly threatened. Fueled by the rise in self-employment and individuals’ desire to connect to a larger community, co-working environments had grown dramatically in recent years. WeWork, for example, was the largest tenant in Manhattan with nearly 9 million square feet of real estate as of April. However, even after stay-at-home rules are lifted, workers are unlikely to return in the same numbers for fear of contagion. “At the end of the current crisis, given, at least short-term, severe economic uncertainty, I expect new and renewed commitments to co-working space to be dramatically off original forecasts,” Compass real estate adviser Alex Cohen told Minnesota Public Radio's Marketplace.

So is the workplace as we know it now a relic of the past? Is commercial office space no longer relevant? The decelerating trends carry significant financial, social, and psychological impact. A mass exodus from the real estate market would result in a severe recession—or worse. Furthermore, any presumption that working from home is the new normal disregards the challenges such an arrangement poses to many residence-bound employees, including the sense of alienation and loss of community, the lack of access to particular tools or resources, and—in the case of families—the distractions arising from multiple individuals under the same roof.

The likely reality is that we will eventually return to a collective workplace, but one that has changed beyond what we could have previously imagined. In the now-transformed future office environment, the fundamental question will not concern which trends are on the rise or wane, but how to balance seemingly conflicting criteria. For example, community is an intrinsic human need, yet so is wellness. In Lost Connections: : Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope (Bloomsbury, 2018), author Johann Hari recounts a study conducted by professor Sheldon Cohen in which he determined that isolated individuals are three times more likely to catch a cold virus than those with many close contacts to other people. And yet, health-motivated social distancing guidelines threaten community connections in a variety of ways, including prohibited assemblies, curtailed chance encounters, and restricted face-to-face interchanges. These practices may reduce the spread of contagion but can cause other health problems.

Architects and designers will be called upon to help resolve this inherent contradiction. Given that the community-health conundrum may pose the greatest challenge the AEC industry has yet faced in the commercial arena, rectifying this conflict will be no small feat.