Welcome to the Comfy Office of the Future
Despite the enduring popularity of remote and hybrid work, many corporations have embraced plans for new office headquarters, campuses, and buildings, remaining convinced that employees need to return to the office to sustain high levels of productivity and feel connected to their company culture (or just to control their workforce, depending on who you ask).
The first phase of Amazon’s second headquarters is scheduled to open in Arlington, Virginia, in the third quarter of this year (though construction of the second half has been indefinitely delayed). Apple is still planning a new campus in Durham, North Carolina. And while Google is planning to give up some leased office space, it still intends to break ground this year on a massive San Jose office and residential project.
But with employees well aware of—and often in love with—their newfound ability to work from home, projects like those now have to meet new criteria: how to make the office a place that people—like you, in your hypothetical Bethesda existence—actually want to go to, even when they don’t have to.
The answer, so far, involves adding design features and perks that try to be more meaningful than those of the prepandemic recent past. Open floor plans filled with a sea of desks are out. Private meeting spaces and flexible one-person offices are in. Planners like to talk about “amenity-rich environments,” meaning not just pool tables and office snacks but more practical offerings such as abundant private offices and meeting spaces, gyms, dentists, retail, and childcare.
They’re all wrapped inside structures that more often feature natural light and outdoor space, sit at a central urban location, welcome the surrounding community on at least the ground floor, provide services outside the traditional remit of employer benefits, and offer flexible ways of working rather than an array of desks. The overall package, architects say, should produce a feeling of comfort—even luxury—in the office that competes with that of staying at home.
“Going to the workplace should be more convenient than it is to work from home, so that the workplace earns its commute,” says Grant Kanik, a partner and workplace consultant for architects Foster and Partners, which led the design for Apple’s headquarters, Apple Park. “I call it corporate-to-comfy,” says Brian Parker, principal of the Interiors Studio at Cooper Carry, a firm that designed the State Farm office campus in Georgia and had been tapped to work on Microsoft’s potential Atlanta headquarters before the plan was paused.
Before the pandemic, office buildings and campuses were often constructed almost to a formula, Parker says. The number of employees, percentage of different types of jobs, and predictions about future headcount growth went in one end; out the other came the number of desks and square feet required. Function ruled over form. The design work could even be boring.
Under that model, most offices were structured with about 80 percent of usable, functional floor space for desks and 20 percent for meeting rooms. Designers spent most of their time drawing floor plans with different iterations of desks and offices and tucking conference rooms into the corners. Even before the pandemic, it wasn’t unusual for a third or even half of all desk space to go unused during parts of the day, Kanik says. Companies that did manage to heavily use their space often did so at the expense of making workers feel packed into the open floor plan.