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Design - Product design

Flexible Offices Need More Purpose-Built Spaces


“Do we need an office?” That is the question that businesses around the world are pondering, as they weigh the choices of calling employees back from their mandatory work from home arrangements. The answers run the gamut. Companies like Zillow are allowing employees to work from home indefinitely. Others, like Facebook, are extending their work from home policies well into the future. The tech giant has announced they are keeping their offices closed until July 2021. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some companies are pushing workers to return to their desks. L’Oreal has requested all employees back to their desks, requiring a doctor’s note to continue to work from home.

The answer to whether or not an office is needed, for most companies, is: sometimes. The consensus for a large swath of organizations is to allow staff the option of working from home, with the ability to come into the office if and when desired. This flexibility seemingly gives employees the best of both options, but it creates plenty of uncertainty when it comes to predicting office needs. “Right now everyone is still trying to figure out what the appropriate density will be for offices and what the right ratio of private space should be,” said Brian Chen, founder of the modular office space manufacturer ROOM. “The problem is that this ratio can change quickly and everyone has a different answer.” 

Perhaps the better question then is: why do you need an office? Some employees need quiet, private space to do head down work, utilizing the office as a way to flee distractions from home. Others have a need for collaborative meetings that go beyond videoconferencing, requiring safe conference rooms for developing and presenting ideas. Salespeople may ask for comfortable, well-designed reception areas with lots of amenities for entertaining clients. An emerging function of the post-COVID office, managers will want a place where everyone can get together to build team cohesion, even if the majority of which happens offsite.

Competition comes home

For each of these different use cases, offices will have to compete with not only our homes, but neighborhood coffee shops and local event spaces to entice employees to return. In order to create a place that people want, rather than need to go, office designers and managers will have to envision these specific purposes, and tailor function to an organization’s requirements. Flexible offices don’t always mean blank, flexible spaces. On the contrary. To be flexible, offices need to have dedicated, intentional environments, with the right furnishings, lighting and technology for each task.  

The hard thing about this approach is that bespoke workspace requires commitment to a use. This can be problematic, since building out an office is a significant expenditure and therefore inherently inflexible. The problem is compounded by the rapidly changing commentary on the need for offices and the uncertain financial situation that many companies find themselves in. With so much still unknown about how we will work in the future, it can be hard to say definitively what requirements of a future workspace are needed. 

The solution, rather than creating spaces that can be used in a number of different ways, is to build spaces that can be purpose-built in an adaptable manner and easily modified. To help office landlords and managers provide purpose-built spaces without the costs and downtime associated with disruptive construction projects, ROOM has created a line of modular workspace solutions including soundproof privacy booths, meeting rooms and open spaces for focused work or collaboration. These flat-packed rooms can be shipped directly to site and easily assembled, no permit or contractors required. They are also designed to be easily disassembled so they can be moved or stored as needs change.

Aligning the spokes

Changing from a headquarters strategy to a hub and spoke model creates an unbundling effect of services that the office provides.

Brian Chen, founder of modular office space manufacturer ROOM

Another modernization taking place is happening in office portfolios, as corporations switch from a large, central headquarters to a number of smaller ones distributed throughout a geography. “Changing from a headquarters strategy to a hub and spoke model creates an unbundling effect of services that the office provides,” Chen said. This strategy is seen as a way to provide easier access to office spaces for employees that don’t live near downtown locations as people begin a migration away from dense city centers. Breaking a large campus into smaller satellites can often force office managers to prioritize certain working environments as they might not be able to fit them all into every location. “I envision that we will see companies with a dedicated meeting room space in one location, and another for focus-driven, heads-down work. We want to provide the entire spectrum of spaces to give people the option to choose which one suits them best.”

One of the added benefits of installing prebuilt spaces is that they are able to be equipped with technology that might be difficult to install in a traditional permanent structure. ROOM’s suite of products come with occupancy sensors that can help office and facilities managers understand how the unit is being used in order to make their workspaces as productive and efficient as possible. 

Flex sells

Flexible offices are the future. But flexible offices are not the same as flexible workspaces. Floorplans that try to be everything to everyone usually don’t excel at anything, creating a chaotic mess of irrelevant fixtures and design features, or lacking the specialized amenities needed to easily complete certain work tasks. Now that flexible work arrangements are forcing our offices to compete for worker presence, we have to build them to excel at certain business tasks over other common spaces. Creating malleable environments with long-term configurability can provide benefits for every work during this shift in the work culture. As massive of a change as this has been to the way we work, one thing is certain, it won’t be the last. For businesses the question isn’t “will there be a change” but “will we be ready when the next change happens?”

Image credit: ROOM

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