The Future of Work and the Long-Awaited Return to the Office

When 2020 began, any number of consultants, forecasters and soothsayers ushered in the new decade with their predictions about the future of work. Many, like Katie Burke, Chief People Officer at Hubspot, pointed to remote work as among the biggest trends to watch. And boy, were they right. When the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in March, it dramatically accelerated change that was already underway. The work-from-home genie officially vacated his bottle.

But what happened to all that unused office space?

This question might drive some architects and designers into an existential crisis. But not SHP. Instead, as we kick off 2021, we’re re-examining the meaning and purpose of the physical workplace through the lens of the future of work. We want to understand: what could or should the future of work be, in light of (or perhaps in spite of!) COVID-19? And what or how does the future of work impact the spaces our team designs and delivers?

We asked Jeffrey Sackenheim, Vice President of Architecture and Brady Mick, Director of Strategic Design, to weigh in with their thoughts.


A lot of companies are shifting their workforces to a “virtual-first culture.” How does this impact the kind of planning you do or strategic design recommendations you might make for your clients?

Jeffrey Sackenheim (JS): We’re trying to provide as much counsel as we can, to understand how our clients were working before and what was or was not working well for them previously. Then we run the question back: how have they been working since March 2020, and what have they learned during that period of time?

As you can imagine, clients fall all over the spectrum. There are some folks who believe that what they were doing before the pandemic was really positive. They want their people back in the office. These are the companies whose next space might look a little bit different, but by and large, will stay the course.

We also have some clients who acknowledge they’ve learned a lot about their people, how they work and how they communicate. They view this last year as a sort of accidental trial period for the future of their work. These are likely the organizations that will allow their people to continue to work from wherever is best for each individual, wherever they’re most effective. The COVID-19 pandemic will directly inform how and what they build in the future, how their space will allow their people to do what they do.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We as designers believe in the power of space and what it can mean.[/perfectpullquote]

We as designers believe in the power of space and what it can mean. The organizations that are able to embrace the change and what they’ve learned over the last year are the ones that I believe are most primed for success. So, we’re on a journey with them now of trying to, as best as we can, define what that might look like for their business. As a designer, that’s an exciting challenge to tackle.

Brady Mick (BM): To build on Jeffrey’s point, I think it’s fair to say that workplace design and strategy was pretty low on everyone’s radar. In most workplaces, people had their assigned spaces, and they were expected to show up and use that space economically. Efficiency was the measure of productivity.

Then, suddenly, we were faced with this dramatic pandemic that sent everybody home. And guess what? Even though the workforce was distributed, it was — by and large — still productive. Still effective. Still collaborative.

Now, we’re looking at a return to the physical workplace, and the consciousness of how space is used is very high. That consciousness is about more than the use of physical space, too; it’s about company culture, the meaning of productivity, and the differences between efficiency and effectiveness. It’s putting a new kind of pressure on how we plan, but it’s the intersection of all these points that I want to help clients take advantage of.

Brady, you recently interviewed a friend whose colleague estimates that 60 to 70 percent of their team can primarily work from home but will need to “touch down” in the office one to three days per week. Is this hybrid work-from-home/work-from-work model the future of work? And if so, how does that change the physical workplace?

BM: People will return to the physical office, though what that looks like in terms of timing, volume, frequency or purpose is anyone’s guess at this point. One thing we know for certain is that the expectations, the experiences will be different.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Yet, what happens if the spaces are still the same?[/perfectpullquote]

Yet what happens if the spaces are still the same?

I liken it to growing up, moving off to college and then returning home to your childhood bedroom, where you still have your Little League trophies and your twin bed. It creates a sort of cognitive dissonance, a discomfort even. That’s my fear for the full return to work, the chasm between employee expectations and experiences, and reality.

You’re suggesting that design can help organizations avoid cognitive dissonance when employees return to work post-pandemic. How?

JS: Let me answer that question by first diving into the strategic design process. When we are asked to design a new space or redesign an existing one, we take into consideration a company’s overall headcount, department size, potential growth, various needs for private and public spaces, and more. We determine how each of these factors will impact not just how much space a client needs, but how it will be used. At the end of our analysis, we’re able to clearly demonstrate how many square feet a client needs and how that space can be configured to maximize their investment.

What Brady is suggesting — and I agree — is that the softer aspects of a business are the ones that will become increasingly important. That sense of community, that sense of culture, that sense of belonging, the ability to onboard people effectively, the ability to allow for people to learn in real time in their work; I think those are the things that are probably suffering the most right now and will have a definite impact on a return-to-work scenario for any organization.

It’s these softer skills and aspects of business that, yes, design can solve for, by creating places where employees want to go, where they feel safe and supported, not just in the physical sense.

BM: Absolutely.  A lot of companies are asking their employees, “How do you feel about working at home?” I’m not sure that’s the most relevant question to be asking, right now.

We’ll bite. What are the questions clients should be asking right now?

BM: Clients should be asking, “What do we need as a group of people to produce results at the highest level possible?” And that leads to questions like, “Where do our highest-level results occur? Do we need to physically be in the same space for that to happen? Who needs to be there? Why? What does productivity mean? What does efficiency look like? What does effectiveness look like? How do we bring innovation? How do we keep our culture? How do we maintain and support our people?”

That process of exploration leads us to designing a space that facilitates the answers to those big questions and is one where people want to be.

Case in point: One company in my CoreNet class recently shared that their leadership is asking how soon the workplace can be utilized to increase community between teammates. Before the pandemic, this company had outgrown its large corporate campus and was in the process of completing a separate mini campus to have enough assignable workstations to accommodate present and future growth. Now, the team is in the process of abandoning the mini campus to bring everyone home under the same, massive roof.

Of course, this move also anticipates that not everyone will get an assigned seat in the new world. This suggests a focus on culture and connectivity is more important in this company’s return to work than, say, past ideas of space driving productivity.

So completely re-imagining existing and future spaces for an unknown workforce with unknown answers to deep, existential, reasons-for-being questions. That sounds like a really small, simple, little ask of workplace design. #Sarcasm.

JS: Yeah, but that gets me excited. Creating a sense of place, creating spaces where people want to be… that’s the point of design.

BM: Isn’t it fun? Bring it on.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Creating a sense of place, creating spaces where people want to be… that’s the point of design.[/perfectpullquote]