The Coronavirus Economy: How office layouts could change for good because of the pandemic

June 28, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

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In the wake of the pandemic, furniture design specialist Knoll has seen explosive demand for work-from-home solutions. As a result, the retailer is doubling down on investing in e-commerce and visualization capabilities. Knoll is also consulting with clients on their return to the physical office when the time is right. 

Fortune spoke with Andrew Cogan, chairman and CEO of Knoll, for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, about how the outbreak has affected his business, his thoughts on the future, and how he is working through the pandemic.

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: How has the outbreak of COVID-19 affected Knoll, and by extension, the interior design industry at large? How has the pandemic altered Knoll’s operations and workforce?

Andrew Cogan, chairman and CEO of Knoll
Courtesy of Knoll

Cogan: We’ve learned a lot about keeping our people safe. We operate in countries all over the world, with associates in offices and manufacturing facilities across North America, Europe, and Asia. I wish I could say we had a pandemic playbook on the shelf, but what we do have is an amazing seasoned team that we’ve spiked with new talent. Together, we all pivoted pretty quickly to remote work and kept our principal manufacturing operations open in most locations with enhanced health and safety standards. We did have to suspend operations in Italy, but fortunately those facilities are open again.

I expect design-driven businesses like ours that continue to invest in innovation, design, and technology will thrive. With respect to the spaces we occupy—the workplace and the home—we see a lot of opportunity coming out of this pandemic. People crave the community, connectivity, and creativity of the office; at the same time, consumers will be spending more time in their abode than on travel or entertainment.

A Knoll-planned space created with a freestanding meeting structure surrounded by lounges and individual work areas, featuring an Antenna Power Beam, Generation chairs, and Tone height-adjustable desks.
Courtesy of Knoll

Have you been going into an office still? Or have you been working from home? What does your average day look like now?

I’m based in New York, and I am transitioning back to working at our headquarters in Manhattan. I continue to work from home a fair amount as well, which, like many of us, I did prior to the pandemic. In many ways, my day-to-day is illustrative of where we see our clients moving. People want to come back to the office; at the same time, we expect work from home to be a bigger part of the mix for many people going forward.

I’ve been spending a lot of time on our strategy to grow Knoll’s work-from-home solutions and e-commerce capabilities. Unsurprisingly, demand for work-from-home solutions has skyrocketed in the past few months. Fortunately, we were moving aggressively in this direction before the pandemic. We acquired—an e-commerce brand devoted to home-office design—last year, which set an all-time record for sales in March, and our Muuto brand is poised to meet work-from-home solutions as well.

My other big focus has been our work to guide clients on the safe return to the workplace and envisioning what the post-pandemic office environment will look like. I check in with clients and stay close to the design team’s work, and we’re moving quickly on new offerings to help retrofit offices for short-term reopenings as well as longer-term workplace design solutions.

Depending on where they are, some nonessential workers have already started going back to the office. There are a lot of ideas out there, but what do you think the future of the office space is as employees readjust? What kinds of protective and social distancing measures need to be in place, and how does interior design play a role?

The workplace is not going away. The benefits of the mix of community, connectivity, culture, and spontaneity you get in the workplace is simply irreplaceable. We’re hearing from our own people and from our clients that they want to come back to the office. This has created lots of opportunities for the design community, dealers, and our clients to retrofit, redesign, and reimagine their workplaces. And I think we’re on point with the thought leadership, design collaborations, and products as well as the distribution channels to support all that.

Right now, to start to bring people back to the office, it’s all about reorienting circulation and reorganizing space—and providing screens for space delineation. I expect that this phase will be followed by a shift in overall facility design, exploring meeting and gathering areas, for example, where you are not in an enclosed room, but working in open freestanding architectural structures surrounded by lounge and individual work areas, all designed to facilitate distancing and enhanced airflow—a much healthier environment overall.

A Knoll-planned workplace, including an accessible, open entryway; generous circulation paths; internal stairs as an alternative to elevators; a connection to the outdoors from almost every space; group areas and places for people to be alone; flexible spaces and technology to connect coworkers in the office with those working remotely.
Courtesy of Knoll

What about coworking spaces? How do private social clubs and shared offices need to rethink their design and layout?

Coworking spaces fulfill the same needs for connectivity as more traditional workplaces. In all likelihood, some areas of coworking spaces are already well designed for the new reality, and some will need to be updated. The solo gig worker who maintains a small office space is already separated from others. But densely packed open-plan areas will have to be revamped and reimagined just like traditional office spaces.

We also expect that the mix of clients using coworking spaces could evolve. With many predicting decreased startup capital, these spaces may be underutilized by incubator-type businesses and could turn to providing established companies with places for their own teams during this period of social distancing.

Longer term, either in next year if we get a vaccine or if this is indeed the new normal indefinitely, how should companies across sectors plan for the future?

Once there is a vaccine, I think that people will start to gravitate once again to welcoming, comfortable, collaborative areas of the office. Looking back over the past five or so years, much of our business has been about designs that support a “resimercial” experience; everyone wants to make their office feel more like their home.

Flash-forward to today: In many ways, what we’re doing is bringing the office to the home. Everyone has pivoted from their offices, at least temporarily, and companies are acknowledging that work from home will be a more permanent part of their mix. But companies are also recognizing that work from home comes with issues of social isolation, ergonomics, and wellness: Not everyone can have a place at home for focused work. Our work styles and the spaces that support work are undoubtedly going to change coming out of this pandemic, but inspiring spaces where people can do their best work remain vitally important to the ingenuity and creativity of individuals and teams.