Back to the Office: The New World of Work


Although official corporate reentry dates are still in flux, office design and work-life trends are now coming into sharper focus. We recently attended a Bisnow webinar with leading architects and designers, who outlined what they’re thinking and predicting for post-pandemic office buildings.

The speakers were: Yolanda Cole, founder of Hickcok Cole Architects; Barbara Mullenex, managing principal of Perkins Eastman; Paola Moya, founder of Moya Design Partners; and Santiago Manent Alonso, GM, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, for Porcelanosa, USA. The discussion was moderated by Lighting Environments President Erin McDannald.

Here are highlights of the discussion.

Flexibility

If “pivot” was last year’s word of the year, the top spot in 2021 will go to either “hybrid” or “flexibility.” The panelists predicted that, with remote work and flexible hours becoming more commonplace, office space and furnishings will be scaled and assigned to accommodate the shifting requirements of those who go the hybrid route.

Unsurprisingly, they also agreed that, while remote work was here to stay, keeping teams connected in this changing world would be a challenge. Younger workers, for example, may feel they are missing out on the personal mentorship their senior staff provides. Again, flexibility, experimentation and technology will be key to maintaining the collaborative energy and relationships that enhance creativity and an environment in which everyone thrives.

Technology

Thanks to LEED and WELL certifications, protecting the health and wellness of the planet and its people was already top-of-mind and a go-to standard for design. COVID has only amped up the importance of health-based IT, moving designers to take their cue from the health care industry (versus the hospitality sector, as they did in the “before times”) for safe and disease-resistant — but stylish — materials and hospital-grade HVAC and air pressurization systems.

They’re also looking to incorporate, measure and track the effects of other design considerations that support quality-of-work-life, like natural light, sound mitigation and exposure or access to outdoor space. The goal is not only to ensure that the work environment has a positive impact on the people who work there, but also, post-COVID, to achieve and maintain the highest standards of safety, health and privacy (as well as design).

Equity

In a conversation about “repositioning assets” (i.e., converting office buildings to residential), the panelists noted that it was easier to commit to in principle than to accomplish in practice, especially in the absence of broadly established policies and incentives. Still, it’s a desirable goal; it revitalizes neighborhoods, saves businesses and supports sustainability.

The conversation then turned to a subject on everyone’s mind: equity. COVID and the social protests of last year have made everyone look at city life through a more discerning lens. The real estate industry, they all believe, has a contribution to make to solving these problems, using its privilege to make a better world.

Equity, they said, must be made a part of every urban development discussion, especially when it comes to affordable housing. It is imperative to involve community members, seeking out their views and feelings about how to make housing and surrounding public spaces more habitable, welcoming and inclusive.

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