Thoughts on the Future of Work

Community, Program, Project Types
Dean Orr, AIA, Principal
Since the pandemic, many offices have adopted a hybrid work model combining in-person and remote work. Principal Dean Orr, AIA, shares his thoughts on how this shift will affect the future of workplace design.

This fall, I was a guest on Future of Work, a podcast hosted by Max Chopovsky of MCCS Realty, based in Chicago. The topic, “Designing the Office of the Future,” is probably as old as the commercial office building, but with the disruption of the pandemic, it’s taken on new urgency. There’s little debate that most offices will permanently adopt a hybrid work model combining in-person and remote work. So how does this shift affect the future of workplace design? I wish I could say my co-guest, Diana Nankin, Principal at Fennie+Mehl Architects and I had all the answers. We didn’t. But the conversation surfaced a few themes that frame the way forward. 

Clarify Purpose

Workplace design alone will not bring staff back to the office. Before space planning begins, organizational leadership must figure out what purpose their office will serve. What kinds of work and activities will benefit from being in the office? What values will a physical workplace support? At JENSEN, we’re seeing a focus on teamwork, especially cross disciplinary teams, and the kind of problem solving and collaboration that happens when everyone’s in the same room. But the point is: you have to know the “why” in order to successfully determine the “what.”

YouTube Office 1 Stairs

Double Down on Flexibility

Space planning previously was a data-driven process informed by industry benchmarks and organizational history. Now, past metrics such as desking ratios or square-feet-per-person are largely irrelevant, and hybrid work policies and practices remain in flux. Workplace design should anticipate a continuing evolution as offices open up and adapt to a new norm of working. What does this look like?

A successful hybrid workplace will combine radically purpose-built environments not easily replicated in a home office (editing suites, test kitchens, makers spaces – specific to a business) with multifunction flex spaces that can adapt to the needs of a given day (conference room > project room > class room > photo studio). To facilitate this adaptability, flexible floor plates, furniture systems, and construction strategies (demountable partitions, mobile power spines, and pre-fabricated components) will play an even larger role. With so much uncertainty, flexible design that can adapt and change over time without major construction is more important than ever. 

Flex Office

Hot Suite-ing

While the past two years have proven that collaboration can be done successfully and sometimes even better remotely, cross-disciplinary team collaboration is best done in person. When these teams come together, how can the office set the stage for them to do their best work? “Hot Suite-ing” is a concept of aggregating a set of office assets appropriate to the team and their purpose, and booking them as a suite for a duration of time. This suite allows the team the flexibility to come together in a number of different workplace settings at will, while still managing their day-to-day tasks. 


Lounge as Desk

Previously seen as an amenity or supportive in nature, lounge or ancillary seating spaces will play a more primary function in the hybrid workplace. To pick up the slack for a reduced number of traditional desks, these spaces originally intended for casual connections are performing double duty as places where someone may work for a whole day. To measure the success of these spaces, we need a new set of definitions that will affect seating heights, ergonomics, IT infrastructure among other considerations not required in the past.


Quality Matters

Whether hot suiting for two weeks or parking in the lounge for a day, the quality of a space matters more than ever. This goes deeper than common notions of “destination” or “branded” workplaces that focus on amenities and brand guidelines. Instead the new workplace makes legible organizational values and mission, and brings individual wellbeing to the front of the design conversation. This includes design, materials and furniture solutions as well as individualized control of lighting, acoustics, and interior climate. These are ingredients that will bolster both teams and individuals and create the authentic workplace experiences that give the office its purpose.

Next World Lobby

Lead by Example

While some are still debating the importance of returning to the office, for me (and our clients), the answer is clear. Community, culture, and collaboration – the elements that drive successful businesses – thrive from being together physically. Particularly at risk are the mentorship and learning-by-observing that helps younger team members grow and the camaraderie that helps all of us feel connected. As leaders, our work doesn’t end with one cycle of visioning and implementing. We need to show up, bring in our teams, and continue to drive the conversation about how work and the office will evolve. What’s more, showing up at the office has a ripple effect that energizes our communities, local businesses, our cities – and it restores the immediacy of observing in person the world in which we live. This is about more than the workplace or our work as designers, it’s a kind of civic responsibility. 

Eleven Inc.

Listen to the full Future of Work podcast episode here.