Cubicall's exam pods set up in an office. In response to new pandemic-dictated needs, Cubicall reconfigured its original booths into "exam pods" and "isolation pods" with features like air filtration and UV disinfection. — Cubicall

Why it matters:

  • Only 11% of companies expect employees to return to work arrangements as they were before the pandemic.
  • The office model of the future will be smaller and more flexible, with fewer workers in a space at any given time, as more employers adopt a hybrid work-from-home/office model.
  • Amid a changed landscape, businesses like Cubicall are preparing for workers’ return with modular office solutions designed to prevent the spread of germs and keep employees safe.

Many things have changed over the past year, chief among them the way we work and where we do it. When COVID-19 threw the world into lockdown, those who could adopted a work-from-home lifestyle almost overnight, quickly illuminating just how many jobs could be done without a centralized physical workplace.

As vaccination rollouts continue across the U.S., and workers return to offices en masse, perhaps as soon as this fall, chances are the spaces won’t look exactly like they did when they left in March 2020. Open plan offices, for one, so popular pre-pandemic, are a much less attractive option given the easier spread of germs.

Rising to meet this new challenge are a range of startups including Cubicall, a modular phone booth and office furniture company. Inspired by the privacy and functionality of the old-fashioned phone booth, with the added health and safety benefits of the post-COVID era, Cubicall’s modular design taps into exactly the kind of qualities experts foresee the office space of the future embodying.

“The future office space will be purpose-built to enable reconfigurable work arrangements that balance collaboration and privacy, group engagement and personal safety,” Amy Loomis, research director, future of work, at global market intelligence firm IDC, told CO—. “The point will be to create adaptive and adaptable workspaces that are designed to accommodate a future of work that we don’t recognize yet.”

[Read here on 10 office furniture inventions inspired by the pandemic.]

Cubicall’s origin story: The privacy solution for open offices

A family-owned business out of Las Vegas, Cubicall began in 2017 out of brothers Nick and Anthony Pucci’s own need for a private space to take phone calls in their shared former office space. After an appearance on Shark Tank, Cubicall built a base of customers looking to solve the same problems.

“Pre-COVID, it kind of centered around tech companies, creative offices and marketing companies, just because those types of industries were more likely to have an open office plan,” Nick Pucci, co-founder, told CO—. When COVID hit and companies sent workers home, however, most companies pulled the brakes on any office design plans.

According to Pucci, Cubicall was quick to pivot, engineering its made-in-the-USA booths to meet new needs. “We started to think of other ways that our booths could be used, and one of the most obvious ways was creating isolation pods and exam pods,” he said. The original booth was reconfigured to incorporate elements like more sophisticated air filtration and UV disinfection, earning the company new customers across the healthcare space.

The future office space will be purpose-built to enable reconfigurable work arrangements that balance collaboration and privacy, group engagement and personal safety.

Amy Loomis, research director, future of work, IDC

Preparing the workplace for workers’ returns

Pucci believes the average worker is suffering from some degree of virtual fatigue and ready to come back to the office — at least some of the time. According to Morning Consult’s latest survey, updated during March 2021, 63% of consumers would already feel comfortable returning to the office.

As employers prepare for that, Cubicall has shifted its strategy back to its original audience.

Now, however, they aren’t alone in competing for a share of post-COVID office redesign spending. “When we first came out, there wasn't much competition,” Pucci said. “Since then, the competition has definitely grown.”

In addition to privately funded startups like Cubicall, some of the design industry’s biggest players are angling for a cut of the COVID-influenced, office redesign business: Steelcase and Herman Miller, two of the most ubiquitous office outfitters, have released their own takes on modular office furniture and elements to prevent the spread of germs through the air.

While many workers are comfortable with the idea of returning to offices, Morning Consult’s poll also found that 78% of remote employees enjoy working that way. Meanwhile, major companies have given up real estate once devoted to flagship offices. According to data from real estate firm CBRE Group, there was 40% more office space up for sublease in the U.S. at the end of 2020 than there was the year before.

[More here on B2B sales tools for the POST-COVID work world.]

Creating the flexible workplace of the future

Studies predict the office model of the future will be smaller and more flexible, with fewer workers in it at any given time, and more people adopting a hybrid work-from-home/office schedule. According to a recent study by the National Association for Business Economics, only 11% of companies surveyed expect employees to return to work arrangements as they were before the pandemic.

“Just as retail is becoming a hybrid online/in-store experience with seamless handoffs, so will office technology,” said Bhrugu Pange, a managing director who leads the technology services practice at global management consultancy AArete. “Meetings will be hybrid—some people will continue to join from home—so office systems, monitors, walls, and seating, will need to reflect this.”

“The office space will become much more of a dynamic environment that can be both a common place that feels familiar and welcoming to employees and a place that can be adjusted to expand and contract and be reconfigured to drive progress and innovation,” said IDC’s Loomis.

"I see future office space as meant only for special initiatives that require collaboration, focused attention, structural control and of course relationship building,” Pange said.

Beyond reconfiguring physical space, developing an office that prioritizes the health of the workers within it will require investment in technology as well.

“Businesses that can offer alternatives for both personal, private space and effective spaces to collaborate will do well,” said Loomis. "Organizations that embraced remote and hybrid ways of working during the pandemic…that offered them the appropriate tools to securely work as a branch of one are very much ahead of the game.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published April 07, 2021