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Returning to the office? Picture yourself in a ‘work tent’

March 13, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC

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Many employees are growing accustomed to the comforts of home amid a widespread shift to remote work. The situation, prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, presents a challenge for businesses: figuring out how to best accommodate people when they return to the workplace.

Steelcase, the Michigan-based office furnisher, is rethinking the ubiquitous, open space layouts it has long promoted, for one. The firm recently tapped Chris Pottinger, an outdoor gear designer and former REI creative, to draw up ideas for a new, post-COVID working environment.

Priority No. 1 is attracting people back to headquarters. “As organizations begin to think about what they’ll need to do to create a safe return for their employees, they’re also thinking of how to create a compelling work experience to bring people back to,” says Markus McKenna, Steelcase’s director of global design and workplace innovation.

The Pod Tent, one of Steelcase’s new office furnishings, creates a personal work bubble.
Courtesy of Steelcase

Enter the work tent, a modern take on the classic cubicle that’s inspired by the great outdoors—a place many of us longed for during COVID-related shutdowns. The concept “is rooted in the human desire to seek shelter and protection from natural elements. For millennia tents have been structures that have done so much for humans, the biggest being protection—from bad weather, to hypothermia and other elements,” McKenna tells Fortune.

The designers created the work tent to limit distraction, increase privacy, and make the office more playful. The pop-up products “were designed to be flexible and change on demand for spaces that reimagine collaboration and create balance between team and individual work,” McKenna says.

Another element is just plain old-fashioned fun—and coziness. “When we’re young kids, we start making tentlike structures out of forts with cushions and blankets. There is this double duty that tents have in making us comfortable. When we use them as we sleep, we’re typically in our most vulnerable state or completely unconscious. Tents cocoon us and make us feel safe when we’re inside of them,” McKenna notes.

“When using tents, there’s this inherent memory that reminds us of our experiences in nature or our experiences when we were kids playing in the living room,” McKenna adds. “This feeling of safeness carries over to the office with work tents.”

The Steelcase Table Tent makes an open workplace a little more private.
Courtesy of Steelcase

Steelcase is introducing the work tent as part of a new product line featuring 46 items for sale. Other gear include the Boundary Tent, a lightweight, versatile freestanding screen, and the Table Tent, a covering that converts any desk, bench, or table into a private place to work.

The collection is inspired by Steelcase’s ongoing research into the work-from-home experience, McKenna says. The company believes employees want—and expect—their future offices to be shaped by this new normal.

“Many workers are office nomads who may not have a set place to go in the office. Work tents provide that flexible structure and sense of privacy wherever people need it. Work tents provide a sense of protection not necessarily against the elements or predators, but maybe a different kind of weather, whatever is happening inside the office,” McKenna says.

The Boundary Tent is a lightweight, freestanding screen for the office that people can use to create separate spaces.
Courtesy of Steelcase

Steelcase is now shipping the Boundary Tent ($570) to buyers in North America. Pricing is yet to be determined for the Pod Tent, which will ship this summer. The Table Tent ($435) will ship in April.

“What’s been surprising is how strongly the pandemic has reshaped so many aspects of our lives, including where and how people want to work,” McKenna says. “[People] don’t want to go back to what they had before. They expect a better work experience moving forward.”

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