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Cubicle farms and open floor plans are out. The post-pandemic office layout will invite employees in

May 31, 2022, 10:00 AM UTC

Corporate America’s real estate footprint has changed significantly since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. While some companies are adapting to new remote- or hybrid-friendly futures, others are insisting that employees return to the office full-time. Regardless, the typical office layout has undergone a complete turnaround from prioritizing desk allocation to focusing on spaces that enable collaboration and high-quality experiences.

Mark Dixon, founder and CEO of IWG, a commercial real estate firm that works with 83% of the Fortune 500, calls the new office transformation one of the “biggest changes since the start of the typewriter,” with design preferences changing now more “than they’ve changed in the last century.”

Getting people into the office is also much harder today than it’s been for the past hundred years, when in-office presence was required for nearly all employees, he says. Companies have altered office spaces to reflect the new work experience and meet employee demands, by increasing public areas, using technology to track space usage, and expanding conference rooms and shared spaces.

Better layouts

For many companies, gone are the days of individually assigned desks. They’ve given way to more conference rooms, greenery, and recreational spaces, all meant to foster collaboration and support employee well-being.

CBRE’s occupancy management practice tells Fortune that prior to the pandemic, the ratio of conference seats to individual desk seats was .27:1. That ratio has now increased to 1:1 due to an “expectation that hybrid employees will use the office for more in-person meetings to complement more virtual meetings when working remotely,” says Lenny Beaudoin, executive managing director and global head of workplace design at CBRE.

Eighty percent of CBRE’s “major clients”—those operating more than 350 million square feet of office space—say they are redesigning collaborative spaces to support new work models as they embrace hybrid or remote-first workplaces. About 70% of respondents allow employees to work from anywhere, enabling designers to create offices with fewer seats than employees, and allocate more space to meeting areas and other amenities. Dropbox, which announced in October 2020 that it was a virtual-first company, now utilizes “studios” instead of offices, a reflection of the new approach to company space.

That’s not to say that employees don’t still want, or require, individual workspaces. In fact, open floor designs have long been a point of contention, with employees, now used to working from home with some semblance of quiet and privacy, donning earphones to drown out noise from colleagues or hopping into conference rooms to take calls.

Beaudoin points out that some companies are taking notice and creating enclosed individual or small group spaces, such as telephone booths or private office areas that employees can book for a certain time slot. The old days of 1:1 desks for employees, however, will no longer be the norm.

Better for culture

The new prevailing office philosophy is “we will bring you together, not to work, but to communicate with others,” Dixon says. Companies are shifting the design of the office to mirror “a very attractive restaurant where you want to go and eat,” he says.

In the early months of the pandemic, some companies, like Nationwide, consolidated their presence in preparation for a less office-centric future. Others like Shopify have followed suit. But not all companies have taken this approach. Google, Meta, and Amazon have opened new offices in more cities at a rapid clip so they can meet talent where they are. “Anybody in a competitive workplace is listening to their employees,” says Joanna Frank, CEO of the Center for Active Design, a nonprofit that incorporates public health research into architectural layouts. It’s a significant sea change as many pre-pandemic office concepts become increasingly viewed as outdated.

“This notion of being very sedentary or having one place to go to meet all those demands was not realistic pre-pandemic,” says Beaudoin. “It is certainly not realistic now.”

Cost-cutting is also an important factor. Dixon highlights that the hybrid model is more affordable, pointing to independent research by Global Workplace Analytics, which shows companies that adopt a hybrid model save an average of $11,000 per employee.

Better tech 

The market for office usage technology has exploded in the last two years. More than 90% of major companies have implemented new technology to track floor plans and occupancy data, according to the CBRE report. The data allows business leaders, especially those in HR, to more efficiently use office space, understand employee needs, and drive engagement. 

“One of the biggest challenges is presence awareness—knowing who’s in the office,” Beaudoin says.

These investments in new design technology include brighter and better-positioned monitors and desks; upgraded conference technology equipped with multiple cameras, microphones, and virtual whiteboards for distributed collaboration; and software for booking conference rooms and monitoring how, when, and who is using office space. 

Tracking apps enable leaders to better understand space usage, and allow workers to determine who is in the office and seek out opportunities to connect with colleagues. But they do raise concerns about privacy, which is why communication and transparency around how tracking data is used are key. 

Happier, healthier people

While in-office games and freebies have long been used to attract and retain employees, those perks have changed to  benefits that materially affect employee well-being, like access to healthy food and drink, walkable locations, outdoor space, gyms and other on-site amenities.

Ideally, Dixon says, employers will try to make it worthwhile for employees to go to the office. ”You go there for special occasions, a meeting of colleagues, hearing from the boss, hearing from your CEO,” he says. ”It’s about purpose. It’s about curated meetings. It’s a very special part of your working week or month.”

Employee health and well-being have become greater priorities thanks to the pandemic. Frank says leaders now understand that their assets have value beyond the price of a building, affecting performance, retention, and engagement metrics. “[They have] a direct correlation to financial performance,” she says. For HR heads and other senior executives, who Beaudoin says are “leaning in” on real estate decisions, a company’s office presence and layout have become intrinsically tied to the culture, regardless of whether the company is remote-first, hybrid, or office-first.

“Creative companies that we see doing interesting things are really trying to drive affiliation,” Beaudoin says. “The most interesting companies to me are thinking about having days when managers are going to be on-site and accessible, offering the opportunity for networking and development, and having amenities that are tailored and targeted to those workers.”

He adds that while 80% of building and office design principles are similar irrespective of company size, industry, or location, the other 20% offer companies an opportunity to customize their layout and, ultimately, strengthen the employee-employer bond.

“We’re seeing organizations start to really target their unique population demands, and that may vary by site [and] by function. But those things are going to attract people back to the office, so that they can create those moments of real affiliation,” says Beaudoin.

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