How Office Design Has Changed in a Hybrid World

Any discussion on returning to the office will bring up a debate about the office design. Employees are more aware of Workplace Office Design than ever before. It all starts with the question: what is the purpose of the office? COVID changed most impressions of why we need offices, so office design continues to evolve in the post-covid world.

Modern office design continuously evolves due to ever-changing consumer expectations, technology adoptions, and industry trends. Yet, COVID expedited a decade of change into a single year.

We started working remotely due to safety and concerns about social distancing, but many employees like the freedom and independence of working from home. Some employees thrived without the fear of fitting in with their peers. These employees are very resistant to returning to the office without a good reason.

While companies did not have large losses in productivity, thanks to technology, they are wary of the loss in company culture and product inspiration. They also cannot afford for their large corporate real estate footprints to remain empty. Many companies are looking to new Office Design trends to attract employees to come back to the office, without resorting to the office life of before.

A brief history of office design

Some think the “open office” plan is a 21st-century concept. However, while workplace design has shifted from private offices and cubicles to an open table setting in the last few decades, an open environment for sharing information where employees collaborate easily has been a goal since early in the 20th century. This concept yearns to increase socialization and collaboration and, perhaps more importantly, reduce real estate costs per employee.

Office design in the ’50s to ’80s

The factory with rows of desks surrounded by private offices with windows to ensure workers’ productivity was the foundation for the business office design. By the 1950s, office design was less rigid and focused on fluidity, but floor layouts still included rows of desks. By the 1960s, office design offered a variety of work settings – based on staff needs. Office areas were organized by function, employees had defined space to work, and cross-department meetings started to occur. With increased freedom of movement and greater privacy when working, workers began to erect panels to separate and personalize their space, establishing the foundation for the modern-day cubicle. The individualized office design trend continued in the ’70s, but worker comfort (think ergonomics), creativity, and autonomy were the focus. The rise of the cubicles began then and continued into the 1980s. Cube farms housed individual employees, and each cubicle required a networked computer.

Office Design in the ’90s to ’10s

The 1990s brought a shift in work habits as workers grew mobile. Emerging technologies (like cellular phones and laptops) untethered the employee from the desk. The evolution of technology allowed for more mobility away from the office with video conferencing and chat apps, enabling collaboration between teams in the office and remote. As remote work increased, workers also began to insist on choosing where they could work in the office. In the 2000s and the 2010s, office design led to the concept of an open office: lounges, cafes, and co-working spaces. The focus is to develop areas where employees could spend time best suited to their productivity instead of being tied to their desks. As the popularity of remote work and work from home increased, dedicated offices and cubicles became co-working spaces and hot desks that multiple employees could use. This transition, started by the dot com tech companies, has given way to a rise in the “anti-office” in all industries. Companies with a more relaxed environment can attract the best and brightest talent. As a result, office design fosters more collaborative and creative work for all workplaces, not just tech and start-up companies. While the “anti-office” was the latest wave of workplace design before COVID, its adoption has accelerated since 2020.

Office Design Post-COVID

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted everyday life and forced the need to rethink how the office will look when workers return. No worker wants to return to the same office they left at the beginning of the pandemic. During COVID-19, keeping employees safe from health risks was the top priority for office design. Post-COVID office design focuses on productivity and collaboration as well as cleanliness, safety, heightened engagement, and adaptability. “…the emphasis of office design has shifted away from mere worker productivity. Employee health, happiness, creativity, and stress levels have become real concerns for employers, interior designers, and architects. The result has led to dramatic changes in the shape, purpose, and design of workplaces.”* “What all companies will be sure to have in common post-COVID-19 is a renewed focus on creating spaces that are safe, healthy, and embrace wellness principles and practices.”* After over a year of mask-wearing, frequent handwashing, and social distancing, how we view office safety and sanitation has changed.

Post-COVID Office Design Trends

  • Pods of 3 to 4 team members
  • Desk Distancing
  • Outdoor meeting areas
  • Small conference areas
  • Executive touchdown spaces
  • Agile spaces
  • Flexible Soft Architecture
The pre-COVID-19 trend, called ‘hot-desking,’ eliminates traditional personal working space, and instead, employees decide where to sit on a first-come-first-served basis. Hot desking disrupts traditional office designs by including different co-working zones such as think spaces. In offices with unassigned desks, surfaces can be deep cleaned each night and are more sanitary.

Hands-free or “touchless” technology-inspired office design.

A 2021 office design trend to reduce the spread of a virus in the workplace is to limit touching surfaces with hands-free technology check-in solutions for visitors at front desk kiosks or scanning QR codes and badges at access control points like doorways, turnstiles, or elevators in a building. We also see more voice activation communication tools, artificial intelligence, and other hands-free controls used throughout the office.

Rise in Hybrid Workspace Drives Changes to Office Design

Today’s modern office furniture design looks very different from the Mad Men days. No longer are employees working in their office all day, with a secretary stationed outside, gate-keeping all distractions. Due to hybrid schedules, dedicated desks have shifted to flexible hot-desking, as employee needs and density change daily. In the hybrid environment, employees work flexible hours, often working from their home’s kitchen or living room and coming to the office specifically to meet and collaborate. Technology allows work in a coffee shop, in the backyard, or even at the beach. In the pursuit of encouraging employees to come into the office, “Resimercial Furniture”, where the office is designed more like a residential or social setting, is increasingly catching the attention of the corporate office design. While space utilization and office design typically focus on employee productivity, a casual and social look gives the workplace a modern appearance and encourages employees to work in the office. In addition, as space utilization drives to limit empty dedicated desks, even full-time office employees may forego a permanent desk as they want to collaborate, socialize, brainstorm, and do heads-down focus work in various places.

Adaptive Office Furniture

Your office is more than a place to sit and store work products. Office furniture’s artistic dimension has evolved dramatically over time. Today, furniture’s design depends more on its functionality, adaptability, and aesthetic appeal. In addition, the office is a destination for employees to meet with others and engage in impromptu discussions. Since furniture has become a temporary touchdown point for hybrid employees, secure internet access and mobile-friendly features such as charging ports are required. Contemporary furniture is now part of the “Internet of Things” phenomena that combine digital technology with form and function, such as employees’ lockers and Smart desks. However, technology is highly dynamic and fast-paced. As a result, technology becomes outdated far more quickly than commercial furniture. Therefore, workplaces have to be aware of constantly changing trends. Ensuring the workspace keeps up with these changes demands agility, flexibility, and adaptability of the furniture.

Furniture Design for a Multi-Generational Workplace

Some workplaces now employ five generations of employees as Americans live longer and work well into retirement. Although there are benefits to increased learning and mentoring, each generation has its preference for working, communicating, and collaborating. Once we understand what each employee group needs from the workplace, we can determine what furniture they require. Start with a Workplace Strategy Plan as an excellent first step.

Increased Collaboration Between Workgroups

As team members are increasingly collaborating with other departments, the silos of the workplace have become more aligned. As a result, office design must allow casual and spontaneous interactions, multi-team collaborations, and heads-down focus work to accommodate a more flexible workspace. Therefore, incorporate flexible furniture that resembles a residential experience to create more casual gathering areas, sound-dampening pods, and dividers that enable individuals to escape the workplace noise or the height-adjustable table that adjusts for sitting and standing for intervals.

Say Goodbye to On-site Office Construction

When possible, it’s always better to avoid on-site construction work. Beyond the permits, landlord approvals, and expenses, the modern office does not adjust well to the circus of a construction project. Instead, modular walls and dividers are efficiently utilized for space separations while maintaining fluidity in the workplace. Office layout changes are more straightforward with fewer framework changes because demountable glass walls are easy to assemble or move. They also have come a long way in style and construction, resulting in a consistent finish with the rest of the office and superb quality. If you’re looking for a custom built-in look, adding millwork to modular furniture may replicate a custom-built construction project at a fraction of its cost.

The New Open Plan Office

While traditional office layouts featured private executive offices around the office perimeter and cubicles for junior employees tightly packed in the center, an open floor plan features large open spaces and minimizes private offices. Opening private offices to an open floor plan imitates the look and feel of the “cool” start-ups by injecting more creativity, communication, and collaboration. However, this type of layout is prone to distraction and, thus, a loss in productivity. “There’s nothing worse than empty desks when you’re trying to create an environment that is inspiring to people.” says the principal of Gensler, Eric Gannon*. The solution was to create more deliberate neighborhoods, including seating clusters for small group meetings, open areas for spontaneous socializing (such as in the break room), and heads-down solitary places for quiet or private tasks. This office design accommodates individual work styles and various employee needs.

Amenities Make The Difference

In the pursuit of talent, companies look for ways to make their employees’ lives easier and decrease stress while boosting productivity. Fitness and food are the most in-demand office amenities for employees. On-site cafes, restaurants, and cafeterias offer the convenience of healthy meals and coffee, reduce employees leaving for lunch or breaks, and provide a pause during their day. In addition, modern fitness centers allow employees to squeeze in a workout immediately before or after work. One recent trend combines a treadmill with a desk to get employees moving and out of their seats while still working.

Introducing the Smart Office

Without office technology, we could not have made it through Covid and Remote work. Technology advancements have consistently changed how people live, work, and play and, at this point, affect nearly every aspect of our lives. In the hybrid world, a technology-enabled office is a must. Technology is embedded in our company badges, enabling touchless lockers and room access. From being able to schedule meeting rooms and desks in advance to seeing where their colleagues are on any given day, technology enables employees to feel connected and included. With non-invasive monitors, space usage can be measured in real-time, allowing facilities to adapt to employee requirements faster and significantly alleviate common office issues.

Offices Go Green… Literally

Offices also go green as nature-inspired workplace designers bring the outdoor elements inside. For example, Biophilic Design aims for visual connectivity between humans and nature. Office plants such as Living Walls also help improve air quality and lead to a healthier quality of life for employees. In-office employees spend more hours indoors at work than anywhere else. And due to many factors, it isn’t easy to find time to get outside once in the office. So Biophilla brings the outdoors inside! Natural light and plants inside the office, from green walls and live trees to potted plants and bamboo walls, can boost productivity by 15%. Perhaps most famously, Amazon took this concept to the extreme with their biodome, known simply as The Spheres, which boasts over 40,000 plants to inspire creativity, improve brain function, and drive innovation.

And, of Course – Budget Challenges

Office décor and interior designs directly impact employee comfort and productivity. Therefore, comfortable office furniture is a necessity and is in high demand. However, they also have to be available economically. Often a brand may have 3 or 4 solid products but is weak in others. Therefore, while it makes sense to simplify the process using one brand, the additional trade-offs and costs can be considerable. To help executives build purpose-driven workspaces for their employees in 2022 and beyond, Gannon shares photos of some of Gensler’s recent design work for Ford, Verizon, and LinkedIn, and to point out features of special interest when it comes to hybrid office design. Finding the right piece of furniture, in function, style, and cost, for each area is one of the significant challenges that workspace designers face to meet modern customer expectations and stay competitive. However, the best furniture dealers thrive on addressing these challenges to create new innovative, functional, acceptable, and aesthetically pleasing workplace designs!

* Workplaces Have Changed – And It’s Time They Change Again” | “What Will Be the COVID-19 Takeaways for the Workplace? | “Hybrid Office Design: Ideas From a Global Leader in Workplace Architecture