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Modular Workspaces Offer a Smarter, More Sustainable Return to the Office


People may be ready to return to the office, but the office isn’t exactly ready for them. The problem? Most workplaces are stuck in March 2020 and aren’t designed for the new reasons that people are coming to the workplace. For employees who are willing to actually put on pants and brave their commutes, they need to know that they are going to be able to get something that they couldn’t at home, things like collaboration and camaraderie.

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According to Julie-Barnhart-Hoffman, a Principal Design Researcher at Steelcase, the challenge with current office designs boils down to a focus on individual, task-based work versus collaborative, team-based work. People aren’t going to the office to sit at their assigned desk surrounded by their personal tchotchkes to bang out their to-do lists. They can do that at that home. Instead, they’ll be walking through office doors to work on projects with their team, host their customers, or catch up with their much-missed work friends. 

This new focus on collaboration and team engagement in the office means that two pre-pandemic workplace design standards are now outdated. The first is the ratio of desks to meeting space. Most office designers see a flip flop from mostly desk space before the pandemic to mostly meeting and collaboration space now. The other is the idea that collaboration tools and technology should only exist in conference rooms. 

These changes might seem obvious but new buildouts and office renovations aren’t cheap. Plus, ripping out perfectly functional materials is counter to many corporate ESG and sustainability goals. Enter modular design, which leans on equal parts prefabricated, all-in-one workplace solutions and individual, mobile furniture and design elements to create spaces that are flexible, easy to change, and fast to build. 

A surprising unsung hero: open office concepts

The ever-controversial open office concept is now an undisputed blessing for the designers tasked with reinventing the corporate office. With fewer walls to reconfigure, the task shifts to how design can be layered on top of what exists and what can be reused.

First priority: “de-densifying” the office. The new focus on collaboration and team engagement should also correlate to less emphasis on square footage per employee as a KPI of the office. The long tables that housed people elbow-to-elbow with their co-workers will be removed to make way for new design concepts, perhaps repurposed later in collaboration spaces. 

A more important metric for these new layouts is the expected space utilization rate on any given day. Both factors in this equation, the number of employees associated with that office location and the total capacity, must be reconsidered given the move to a hybrid model and the new focus on collaboration rather than just task completion. 

While final office layouts will depend on the company, who will be frequenting that office location, how often, and why, some universal needs have already emerged. Smaller huddle rooms for spontaneous brainstorming that don’t need to be booked in order to use them. Whiteboards, chairs, tables, monitors – basically everything – on wheels. Desks that can be moved, separated or joined based on who is in the office working on a particular project. Larger spaces to foster community and socialization. 

The good news is that most offices have furniture (like those long tables that for some reason became desks) which can be repurposed, reducing what ends up in a landfill and environmental costs of starting from scratch. If it doesn’t work in one space, it could in another. 

Cameras on, everywhere 

Office designers are also working with a new golden rule, assume someone will always be working remotely. Ironically, this means designing for the people who won’t be in the space and their abilities to collaborate and communicate with the ones that are. 

According to Cary Bran, Global Head of Zoom Rooms at Zoom, this introduces an important requirement for the return to the office, “Pervasive video in every space is now essential.” Every remote team member should feel fully included in a conversation that’s happening in the office even if the meeting is not in a designated meeting room. Choosing to work remotely shouldn’t mean that employees miss out on anything happening in the office or have a lesser quality experience, just because they aren’t physically in that space. Now workpaces must think about remote participants in all-hands meetings that happen in a communal space or the one teammate at home who is joining a whiteboarding session. 

The unfortunate truth is that meeting or collaboration spaces designed before the pandemic inevitably create an inequitable experience for remote employees. Many don’t have video conferencing capabilities, and even the typical conference room that does only has a small, often outdated monitor mounted on the back wall. The low-quality webcam capturing a wide view of the room makes it difficult to hear those in the room and see non-verbal communication cues. Bran adds, “You have to create a first-class experience for attendees who are participating remotely, from making it easier to join the meeting to the ability for them to see everyone’s face who is present in the room.”

JayJay Kim, a Solutions Architect at Zoom, underscores the importance of considering the technology needs within new office designs from the start, “The technology must be thought of from the very beginning of the design process, not just at the end, because it is so critical to the overall success of the space. Room layouts and furniture choices should depend on what’s needed to connect those in-person with those who aren’t.” 

There is a bit of a silver lining when it comes to audio visual technology factor. Traditionally, A/V in corporate offices was expensive and hardware-heavy, but video conferencing hardware is now appliance-based, easy to install, and can be built directly into modular furniture pieces. No holes in the walls required. Commercial furniture manufacturers like Steelcase and Knoll already have collections on the market designed for “pervasive video” with pre-built space for video conferencing hardware and mobility in mind.

Team collaboration software offered by companies like Zoom support the office’s evolution as they introduce solutions for hybrid work, from digital whiteboarding to virtual reception. Because these solutions don’t rely on specific hardware but instead can be used by any device with a wifi connection, they also mark a move toward a more sustainable office design with less of a dependence on hardware that can quickly become obsolete.

This new era of the office means that commercial landlords and corporate workplace managers alike have a new, dual-focused charter: getting people excited about going back into an office setting while giving remote employees a better experience in the hybrid work model. Modular design enables them to deliver on this mission quickly and with a smaller environmental impact. Making the office more nimble will only set the workplace up for better, long-term success. People are ready to go back to the office, its time to make sure that the office is ready for them.

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