Professionals meeting in a modern, open workspace.
With many employees looking to return to collaborating in person and others requiring dedicated spaces to concentrate, dynamic office spaces are going to be on the rise. — Getty Images/monkeybusinessimages

Before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the modern workplace as we knew it, the open office was common across all industries.

Proponents of open offices claimed this layout accommodated both focus work and collaboration. However, a 2018 study published by the Royal Society in the U.K. found that rather than promote collaboration, open offices discouraged it. Employees spent 73% less time interacting face-to-face, while email and messaging use increased by 67%.

Today, everything has changed. Because the pandemic has proven most workers can still perform efficiently while remote, today’s employees have more say over their working arrangements.

That being said, many would like to continue working remotely at least some of the time — and employers are listening. In CBRE’s 2020 Workforce Sentiment Survey, 66% of employees reported wanting to split their week between home and the office while 91% of managers preferred or were fine with embracing a hybrid model.

The rise of the dynamic office

Because much of society was stuck at home for months on end, many vaccinated individuals are eager to come back to the office and be around their colleagues again. However, this novelty is likely to wear off as time passes, and the office will need to offer employees something they can’t get from their homes or local coffee shops.

Collaboration is the most obvious reason to come into the workplace, but you’ll also see employees with families or roommates who need a place to focus away from the distractions at home. Meanwhile, younger employees may want to come into the office for the mentorship and professional development opportunities that arise from sharing a space. And as the open office has proven, meeting these demands well will require more intentional spaces.

This new way of working will require a new kind of office. Eivind Karlsen — VP of Product at Industrious, the industry's highest-rated flexible workspace provider — proposes that companies embrace a dynamic office in Industrious' latest white paper, "4 Visions of the Future of the Workplace." Unlike the open office, with its one-size-fits-all approach, a dynamic office is specific and multifunctional, with dedicated spaces that can be altered to suit employees' specific needs as they change.”

Karlsen recommends “giving employees spaces and tools tailored to their needs and providing experiences that they can't [access] from home — such as opportunities for socializing, bonding with their coworkers, collaborating, being mentored and professional development.”

It’s important to anticipate when your employees will be coming in on any given day, so you can make the proper space calculations. Additionally, as occupancy rates rise over the summer and fall, more pressure will be placed on the office to accommodate in-person meetings for the whole team, since these are exactly the kinds of experiences colleagues have missed out on over the past year. This calls for large conference rooms, lounges and even auditoriums as companies gather in person for the first time since early 2020.

Trends to watch for in the dynamic office of tomorrow

1. Mixed-presence meetings and dispersed teams

With the rise of hybrid offices, we’ll see more mixed-presence meetings, in which some coworkers attend in person and others remotely. These will require more and smaller meeting rooms with A/V equipment. Informal collaborative and social spaces which foster creative thinking and team bonding will also become increasingly critical as people become more comfortable sharing spaces.

At the same time, having more and more differentiated collaborative spaces will reduce the pressure on open-plan desk areas to do double duty, making it easier for employees to do heads-down work between meetings. Focus rooms and phone booths may also face more demand from employees who come in specifically to concentrate.

Remote work means employers will have to continually reassess their workplace needs. If the talent an employer wants isn’t in its HQ city, they may decide to open a remote office, through which you can still foster a strong company culture.

“You may have employees who are spread out across the country,” said Karlsen. “Team off-sites and twice-yearly planning sessions can help create opportunities for them to connect with their colleagues in person. You can [also] grow your culture online with tools like Slack, which are great for recreating some of those water-cooler moments or helping employees with similar interests form clubs or channels.”

All of these conditions require nimble yet intentional solutions, from the technology that’s embedded in a space to the furniture that fills it.

56% of hiring managers say that the shift to remote work went better than expected.

62% say their workforce will be more remote going forward.

Source: Ozimek, Adam. (2020) “The Future of Remote Work.” Upwork [1]

2. Intentional, adaptable spaces

One route a company can take to create more intentional spaces is to use modular units.

“Leaders can rethink their office layout with modular units or highly adaptable furniture that can be used to create dedicated areas for different kinds of work,” said Karlsen.

ROOM’s self-contained meeting pods, phone booths and focus rooms can be easily rearranged, added or subtracted from a space to accommodate different needs. For example, in the summer, when parents have more childcare responsibilities, employers can increase the number of focus room units so those employees have space to concentrate on the days they come into the office. Then in the fall, when children go back to school and parents' homes become more conducive to heads-down work, employers can trade out some of those focus rooms for meeting pods.

M Moser Associates’ active office in New York’s financial district takes another approach, using room dividers placed on casters so that they can be quickly maneuvered to provide privacy or split up a space. Additionally, furnishings are designed to be easily reconfigured to accommodate different kinds of collaboration. For example, on one side of a room divider you might group tables and chairs for a small team session, while on the other side you might spread out desks for individual work. If the company needs to come together for a presentation, the room dividers can be tucked into alcoves and the seating moved into concentric semicircles around the presenter.

Similarly, Orangebox produces highly agile office furniture — including reconfigurable pods, mobile seating and, soon, a honeycomb-like system of interlocking desks called Coppice. Each one comes with five upholstered screens that can be adjusted for acoustic and visual privacy. For companies that want an even more custom solution, there’s Canoa, a platform for creating reconfigurable spaces that are both low-cost and low-carbon.

“It's also possible to adapt your layout with your existing furniture,” Karlsen told CO—. “For example, group desks together to create a conference room layout in one part of the office and set up an area for hoteling in another part. Use plants, bookshelves and other items to divide the space — then make it clear to your employees what kind of work each zone is for.”

3. Active workspace and real estate management

Switching to a dynamic office will not only impact the workplace’s appearance and functionality, but also how the space is managed. Employers will need to actively evaluate how the office is being used so they know when and how to adapt it.

“It's important to survey your employees monthly, since their needs may change over time,” said Karlsen. “Managers should also regularly ask their reports what is and isn't working for them. Listening tours are another great way to get a richer sense of how employees are feeling and what they need from their space.”

Additionally, employers can install sensors to measure office density and use of various space types. That way, if a company with a modular system is seeing meeting room usage dip while phone booths are in high demand, it can adjust its mix of spaces accordingly.

The dynamic office will also lead to transformation in how companies approach real estate transactions. Previously, a company would work with a landlord or workplace provider to determine its office space needs, and for the large part only assess those needs at the end of a lengthy contract term. But as companies move to a dynamic office that requires constant re-evaluation and adjustment, they’ll enter into ongoing relationships with their landlords or workplace providers. As a result, contract lengths will likely shorten to allow for more flexibility, or employers may choose to outsource space monitoring and reconfiguration to workplace providers.

Switching from the one-size-fits-all approach of the open office to the specificity and maneuverability of the dynamic office will require more active workplace management. That’s a trade off that’s well worth it for a workplace that not only functions better, but also which employees actively want to be in.

[1] Source: Ozimek, Adam. (2020) “The Future of Remote Work.” Upwork.

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